Wireless multimedia: a skeptical view - Embedded.com

Wireless multimedia: a skeptical view

One of the richest learning experiences I ever had was when I was working as a technology writer at the California Institute of Technology. There I learned invaluable lessons in how to unravel complex topics — such as the current morass of claims about wireless multimedia viability — and look at them critically.

As an employee at Caltech I was able to take courses for free, and I took as many as I could, the most memorable of which were physics classes taught by the unforgettable Richard Feynman. While subject matter was compelling, what was most useful to me were the tools for thinking critically he shared freely.

Beyond the need to question all assumptions, one of the things I learned in his lectures was the importance of visualization, of actually drawing the elements of a problem, no matter how abstract and apparently non-visual. He said that the more complex it was, the more necessary it was. Even when you do not know the details or the underlying logic, if you want to understand the nature of the “objects” being conceptualized and the relationships between them, a well-structured drawing allows you to at least intuit the fault lines, the weak links and the nature of the objects and the differences and similarities between them.

He referred to the technique in one of his books “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” where he recounts how he amazed his fellow students and his teachers with his ability to quickly intuit the truth or falsity of arcane theorems of topology, for which he was at the time utterly unable to derive formal truths or completely comprehend.

When I applied the technique to wirelessly connected multimedia computing, I found mistaken assumptions, questionable links, and ambiguous statistics based on badly worded user surveys and amateurishly designed and misinterpreted “focus groups.” Then there are the fuzzily defined terms and the questionable assumptions about what is being asked, what the respondents are actually responding to and the interpretation given to those answers.

When I talk to companies targeting this market segment, I feel as if I were in the movie “Field of Dreams.” In it when Kevin Costner’s character is asked why he was building a baseball diamond in his farm’s wheat field, he answers: “If we build it they will come.”

In this case, I don’t think they will come, at least not in the way everyone is assuming they will, or in the numbers they are assuming will jump on the wireless multimedia bandwagon.

I know this goes against all of the studies that have been popping up recently, gushing about the opportunities for companies in wireless multimedia. They all say essentially the same thing: based on the promise of greater bandwidth on 3G networks, rapid advances in compression technologies, and new multimedia handset capabilities, a small, but significant number of end users — 10 to 25 percent — are extremely or very interested in purchasing video services for their wireless phones, greater interest than in either gaming or music services.

While still a niche in the market, these studies indicate that tens of millions of wireless users — anywhere from 20 million to 80 million — will by the end of the decade will be regular viewers of mobile video content or using video messaging services.

I have always been skeptical of surveys and focus groups. Unless they are designed very carefully with the questioners — and the questions — vetted carefully, you can derive just about what you want. Surveys and focus groups are like surgical instruments: if they are dull they do not cut deeply, and if they are sharp but in the hands of an untrained or badly trained surgeon you have a bloody mess.

When I visualized the relationships and the entities I see in the market, what did I see and what conclusions did I come to? There were certain characteristics I felt were solid. The technology base is there, or will be there, to provide much of what is needed for wireless multimedia — the bandwidth, the quality of service, the content, and even the quality of the display. And the processors that will bear the bulk of the load are sufficiently powerful.

But we still don’t have concrete information about what the vast bulk of consumers in the mainstream of the market be willing to pay for and what they will expect for free.

If I were purchasing multimedia on my wireless device I would probably consider it the same way I factored in all of those extra services that I got “free” on my MMX-powered PC, when comparing it to another one without those features but of equivalent price. As with the PC, between a wireless device or mobile phone of similar price, I would pick the one with the most options, even though don't plan to use anything other than the basic cell phone functionality.

What aspects of wireless multimedia will appeal to the average consumer? The only thing I can go by is what only one or two Japanese consumer electronics firms depend on when they enter a market: gut feelings based on hands-on experience or what has been gathered from conversations — not surveys or focus studies — with hands-on consumers.

One-way video on a handheld device, either locally, or globally, makes some sense to me — from my cell phone/camera to a system with a much larger screen. In that category also is the use of a multimedia wireless LAN for connecting my printer to my desktop or for two way delivery of video between my PC and my home media center, or between the TV in my office and the one in my living room. I might even pay extra for them.

But multimedia delivery to my handheld computer or cell phone? That depends on what you mean by multimedia. High-quality audio, yes. Ditto for high-quality animation graphics using scalable vector graphics, as well as for game-based combinations of the two. Wireless delivery of still photos? That depends on the quality and the time it takes and how much it would cost.

But I doubt I would pay for delivery of video to my handheld no matter how spectacular and vivid. The videos I have seen are very high quality but they are still being delivered to small screens on a handheld device. And no matter how high the quality, you are still looking at life through a hole in the wall.

Because of the image size issue, small portable TVs, even those with good quality color, are still something you only buy as an extra to thrown in the trunk of the car in case you have nothing else. As for those videophones that keep trying to break through into the mainstream of the market, there is nothing that a 3 x 5 inch or smaller video really adds to a normal phone conversation that is worth the cost.

Maybe the philosophers and historians are right. If we don’t learn from our past we are doomed to repeat it.

Embedded.com Site Editor Bernard Cole is site leader on iApplianceweb and an independent editorial services consultant. He welcomes your feedback. Call him at 602-288-7257 or send an email to .

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