Entertaining Japanese People
By Justin Hall, Thu Sep 20 00:00:00 GMT 2001

With today's technology and bandwidth limitations, passive entertainment is tough to come by on a mobile phone, even in the mecca of mobile multimedia.

Japan is the holy land of mobile phone technology. Anything we're doing in Europe or the United States, they're doing it faster, cuter and in color in Japan. Heck - they've got camera-phones, and they've had them for over a year!

Considering their rich mix of advanced technology, the burgeoning mobile content sector, and a high rate of citizen cellular penetration, Japan is the best place to witness an elaborate experiment in distributed diminutive multimedia devices.

Tokyo is criss-crossed by a thick network of subways and commuter trains. Each day, millions of Tokyo residents are literally shoved into trains (by polite conductors wearing white gloves) to stand shoulder to shoulder for commutes often lasting over an hour. Teenagers, businessmen, and old ladies pushing small shopping carts sway back and forth as trains careen between stations.

Considering the extensive downtime of these commuters, the Tokyo subway is ground zero for the future of mobile entertainment. And no one here is talking. On the walls of the subway cars in Tokyo you'll see signs: a mobile phone with a hash-mark through it - no cellphone conversations permitted. Still, in any one subway car you're likely to see a dozen people bent over, going at it with their thumbs, entertaining themselves with their mobile phones.

Seductive qualities

Japanese phones themselves are entertaining, compared to grayscale straightforward American and European devices. The Japanese screens are larger and they're in color.

Pick up a Japanese phone and press a button, you might see a yellow dog wake up from an on-screen nap, stick out his pink tongue, run around in some green grass, wink and spread his brown paws out to reveal a pink and blue main menu. As you scroll through each of the choices, stars in each corner of the screen wink silver and gold. While you wait for information online, twin rotating pineapples mark time on your screen. It's a lively world of color and animist incongruity.

Fun phones aside, the online entertainment you can find on the average Japanese mobile phone is remarkably similar to what you might find in Europe. Leading Japanese mobile phone service provider NTT DoCoMo reports that 65% of their users are regular mobile entertainment consumers, dialing up a steady diet of phone customization and information; not so much multimedia.

As in most countries, ring-tones are extremely popular here. Commuters have their fortunes told, and read over news, sports scores, stock quotes, movie times and TV schedules and people download Disney character screensavers. .

Not exactly the rich soup of streaming distraction we expect from TV, radio, or even desktop Internet. Still much of this makes WAP, wireless web content in the rest of the world look fairly drab. An installed user base for color and fun effects gives Japanese companies a better chance to distribute uniquely branded content to people's phones.

Also, people in Japan expect to pay small amounts of money for what they enjoy on their phone screens. Coupled with a direct billing to a customer's monthly mobile service bill, there's an actual business model for online content. But today's bandwidth demands drastic restraint from dynamic media. NTT recently announced an i-mode bandwidth increase from 9600 to 28.8kbps. While a tripling of data rates sounds like faster SMS, 28k/second is not exactly enough to watch your favorite soap opera on the train.

Still some of tomorrow's telephone entertainment technology is being thumbed today in Tokyo. A few Japanese phones offer built-in cameras - the chance to send and receive still images of other people using the low-bandwidth mobile phone signal. It's not exactly Hollywood, but a color photo of a friend or family member sure makes for livelier small screen content than a signal strength bar.

Personal Handyphone Service

For the last few years, DoCoMo has offered PHS - Personalized Handyphone Service. Before the pricing on their i-mode service was low enough for teenagers, PHS was the popular service for young folks.

With some different hardware, these phones support up to 64k/second data transfer rates. This is enough speed to beat most modems. So PHS phones are attached to laptops by dedicated net surfers looking to get online while being on move.

As exciting as that mobile speed sounds, PHS phones offer a limited range of coverage and can't be used from a moving vehicle. Accordingly the Personalized Handyphone Audience today is a mere 1.8 million, small compared to the 20+ million folks currently using i-mode.

Still current PHS subscribers have access to a small world of advanced multimedia, the M-stage mobile music and video service. DoCoMo's Yuki Isono explains: "...users can download a song into their PHS phone, store the data in a memory card, and then play it back with their PHS phone." So are people using their PHS phones like a Walkman? It appears not; sadly, "The PHS phone can hold just a few songs."

DoCoMo has launched a video streaming service adjunct to the M-stage server as well. There's currently only one device that can read from M-stage visual - Sharp's Eggy, a digital camera and web browsing machine with no phone services included. With a PHS card inserted, the Eggy will play video clips off the web through this M-stage service.

So DoCoMo's PHS is a phone that holds a few songs, and a camera that plays video clips - sounds tantalizing only, but not quite satisfying. Isono-san explains: "It's not that popular yet. It's like a test. We are expecting people will use our 3G services like that - in the near future."

We are the content

DoCoMo looks at PHS as a laboratory for the next generation of mobile phone multimedia. These M-stage services will be ported to FOMA, DoCoMo's name for their 3G service ("Freedom of Mobile multimedia Access"), promising speeds up to 384kbps. Already in the testing phases, this will be the first deployed 3G network in the world come October 1st.

Early reviews are beginning to filter out online. Renfield Kuroda, a mobile phone beta-tester reports that "...watching a (Planet of The Apes) trailer on my cell phone was pretty damn cool." Aside from this initial wow-factor, the reports have been mixed. Along with vivid multimedia, these early 3G phones promise day-long battery life, tinny sound and large clunky hardware.

From these early beta-test reports it appears that the most compelling rich-media application on 3G phones will be human-human communication. Roy Tseng reports that "I showed many people the video phone and their first reaction was 'When can I get one?'"

Talking with your friend over mobile videophone is likely a more compelling experience than watching a video clip you could see on TV crammed into the small screen. For some time to come, it looks like the best entertainment is likely to still be other people. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the content, and they is us.

Justin Hall wrote his first article exploring technology culture in 1990; since then he's written over 2,000 web pages at Links.net. Today he writes and speaks on electronic entertainment and he's bootstrapping his own TV talk show.