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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Salvaging something from unused videotelephony capabilities

One of the background themes in 2007's mobile industry has been:

"What can we do exploit the unused videotelephony capabilities we put in for 3G?"

Pretty much all 3G UMTS handsets have a forward-facing secondary camera, intended for videotelephony. It typically comes with software for controlling a video call, and uses the H324M protocol.

But unsurprisingly, nobody uses it. 3G videotelephony was one of those applications (like MMS) which was designed by committee, rather than on the basis of how users actually behave. To use mobile videotelephony, you have to hold the phone right up level in front of your face, or else the camera gets a great view of either your nostrils or your earhole. This is uncomfortable, unnatural, and downright dangerous if you're walking or driving.

Then there's minor issues like unclear pricing (question: do YOU know how much a video call would cost you with your current tariff?), privacy and a total lack of consumer demand.

Put simply, it's useless, it's always been useless, and it will probably always be useless. (As will be proved yet again with the upcoming IMS variant called Multimedia Telephony).

(Although I did see a drunk woman waiting for a bus last night, pointing the camera at the bus stop, as evidence to loudly prove to her husband that she was actually on her way home. So maybe, just like MMS being used for embarrassing photos in the pub, the optimum usage case for video calling is best summed up as 'seven pints of beer and a couple of tequilas').

And despite the pointlessness of videocalling, even the cheapest 3G phone still ships with the capability anyway, wasting time & money in BoM, software and integration & testing. And annoyingly, it isn't even possible to delete the video call application, so it just sits in the phone wasting memory, with unused icons cluttering the home screen, lengthening menu lists and adding unnecessary clicks to the user experience.

But something interesting is happening now..... unconstrained by the bewildering user-ignorance of standards bodies, some genuine innovation is happening with mobile video.

Developers have started to realise that it might be possible to salvage something from the wreckage of videotelephony. After all, there's now a standards-based video client on 10's of millions of handsets, so perhaps it can be pressed into service for something a bit more intelligently-conceived than person-to-person video calls.

Some interesting examples of H324M use cases include:
  • TV streaming
  • Uploads to social networking sites
  • Video mail
  • Video blogs
  • Security & surveillance
  • Video voting & other contributions for TV shows
Now not all of these are perfect, and there obviously are limitations in using client software originally designed for something else, but the general concepts are going in the right direction. The nicest thing is that using the built-in video client means that developers don't have to design their own software and port it to 10 different OS's laboriously.

I've had assorted briefings, discussions & collateral with a lot of companies in this space. I know the guys at NMS Communications pretty well, and they & their partners have some cool applications. And then I had an interesting discussion & some demos over dinner with HP the other night around the mobile video theme as well. (Ewan at SMS Text News has a great write-up here). Radvision and a bunch of other companies play in this space too.

Now there are definitely still some challenges here - the video quality isn't always good enough for some applications, and there's usually no option to save the video stream to the phone's memory as well as send it over the air. This means that the mobile video-call approach is best suited to 'real time' applications like TV viewing - otherwise you might as well as just use the videocam function, save the file to a memory card and transfer it to a PC later on. Once it's on a PC you can email it, upload it to YouTube and so on - usually for free. There's also still the question about pricing, and whether it fits with prepay models.

But overall, I'm a bit more positive about niche applications for mobile video - now that it's being exploited by market-savvy application designers, rather than some just group of academic grey-beards decreeing that videotelephony is 'obviously' a good idea.....


Zec said...

I had some thoughts about video call recently. Why didn't users use it more in social networking sites as the alternative to webcam ?
I belive, the price is issue.
The development could be done, I hope...

Anonymous said...

Dean, as you said, using the video capabilities in a handset for video telephony is really quite a lost cause in the near term. Using the video capabilities to support user-generated content uploads to social networking sites has been booming for the last year or so. All operators in Japan, Korea and Helio in the US have plenty of technology and marketing messages to support this stuff; usually only as a means to get/protect gross adds rather than as a monetizable service.

Tsahi Levent-Levi said...

I tend to agree with you.
Video Telephony using H324 (3G-324M) by itself is of no real use to most of the population, but I view it as an enabler - once you have it, you can start thinking of the different services and applications that can utilize it.

Arvind Padmanabhan said...

There's another use for the video camera on the phone: use it as a webcam with your laptop/PC for fixed video-conferencing. It's useful if your laptop/PC doesn't have a camera. Check this link: