See and say: Wireless video phone on the way
TOKYO (IDG) -- In anticipation of the expected boom in wireless devices when third-generation (3G) cellular technology rolls out in early 2001, NEC has developed a prototype of a two-piece 3G video handset which transmits images and sound simultaneously.
The handset combines a 130-gram phone and a separate 240-gram viewer which is equipped with a 2.8-millimeter CCD (charge coupled device) camera, a microphone, and a 2-inch color TFT LCD (thin-film transistor liquid crystal display).
The phone and viewer are connected using Bluetooth short distance radio technology, so users can speak into and see video on the viewer while the phone is in their pocket or briefcase.
Images from handset's camera are compressed using the MPEG-4 codec (Moving Pictures Expert Group, Layer 4 coding and decoding) standard. NEC was responsible for building the first MPEG-4 codec device for mobile handsets.
In July, the Japanese company announced that its device could compress images sufficiently so that they could be transmitted between mobile devices with data transfer rates of between 64Kbps and 128Kbps.
The prototype handset, which will not be sold as a product, is aimed at the 3G W-CDMA (wideband code division multiple access) network system that NEC, NTT Mobile Communications Network (NTT DoCoMo), and other vendors and telecoms are currently developing. The W-CDMA-enabled handset will eventually be able to download data faster than many of today's modem-connected PCs, according to a representative at NEC.
W-CDMA networks will have data transfer rates of 2Mbps when the user is motionless and 384Kbps when the user is walking, according to the NEC representative. Japan's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), which regulates the evolution of cellular technologies, established the time frame for the rollout of 3G devices in July of last year.
NEC's handset currently hits a data transfer rate of only 64Kbps, which an engineer at NEC described as potentially the most cost-effective rate even when higher speeds become available. However, he added that NEC will have a version of the prototype capable of 384Kbps by the time 3G services roll out.
At 64Kbps, the handset will be able to transmit and receive just over 10 images per second, according to a representative at the company.
While far from the 400Kbps needed for VCR quality, video on the handset is smoother than the world's first video phone, Kyocera's 165-gram VisualPhone, according to the NEC representative. The Kyocera phone retails for around 40,000 yen (US$385) and broadcasts data at 32Kbps, or about 2 images per second.
Kevin Williams, an analyst at market research firm IDC Japan said that NEC's handset is a first step as Japanese vendors jockey to incorporate a variety of technologies into their devices in the lead-up to 3G. Vendors are just trying to "jump the gun with this first generation of products ... I guarantee that they will have a second generation within six months," Williams said.
Williams gave Bluetooth as an example of a technology that NEC needs to test in prototype products such as the video handset.
Bluetooth is an increasingly popular wireless specification some analysts think will dominate mobile devices in the coming years. The official specification for Bluetooth 1.0, which was developed by L.M. Ericsson Telephone, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba, was released in July.
Japanese telecommunications companies said earlier this month that they were scrambling to bring their network systems up to speed before the early 2001 start date MPT has set for 3G cellular technology.
NTT DoCoMo, an independent spin-off from Japan's former telecommunications monopoly, Nippon Telegraph & Telephone (NTT), is expected to lead the way, rolling out its first products such as the NEC handset by April 2001, according to a representative at the company.
Japan Telecom, which recently received large investments from AT&T Corp. and British Telecommunications, looks to be next in line, planning to bring out W-CDMA handsets by October 2001, according to BT Senior Vice President Chris North.
Michael Drexler writes for the IDG News Service in Tokyo.
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