Small Wanders: Making Video for Tiny TVs

When the promotional material for a new mini-DVD system focuses on attributes such as "fits in your backpack" and gives you something to "watch during recess," it's easy to assume that the target audience for this $120 device is pre-pubescent.

(click thumbnail)Eyetop DVD includes "stylish-looking" blue sunglasses.From a larger perspective, CyberHome's new Mini-DVD system, which plays only 3-inch DVDs instead of the standard 4.5-inch discs and has a 2.5-inch LCD display, represents a significant step in the movement toward miniaturization of digital TV.

It's an anomaly amid the big-screen visions of the digital era.

CyberHome's Mini-DVD system, which is initially fed by animated programs and TV reruns from the Warner Bros. library, is hardly alone in the swing toward the small--actually, tiny--screen.

Recent announcements by Texas Instruments and Qualcomm about their mobile TV initiatives are further reminders that viewers may be watching alleged HD video on screens two inches or smaller.

Many video aficionados are already frustrated with the 7-inch or 9-inch displays for backseat automobile monitors or laptop DVD players. The latest tiny screens certainly do not present the breathtaking visuals for which digital TV should be known.

Critics are questioning whether viewers who become accustomed to the glory of the biggest screens will tolerate miniature video. Proponents contend that the go-anywhere availability of the palm-top and pocket devices assure an audience that will put up with size limitations.


Downsized video is getting bigger. At the CES this month, "Eyetop DVD" debuted--a wearable DVD player that integrates a minute video screen (barely one inch across) into "stylish-looking blue sunglasses," as the company puts it.

A portable DVD player in a custom carrying bag feeds the miniature LCD screen--but only to one eye so that viewers can still "stay in touch with their surroundings," the company explained. (You can also plug the nose-top screen into your videogame console for another kind of immersive experience.)

Another CES introduction came from SlingMedia, which unveiled its Slingbox Personal Broadcaster. The Slingbox device streams live or prerecorded programs to a laptop, cell phone or Personal Digital Assistant--what the company calls "place shifting."

So whether it's real-time transmitted television or stored content with local playback, there's a significant move toward tiny TV. In-Stat, the market research group, expects the audience for mobile phone TV reception will jump from about a quarter million users now to 1.2 million by the end of 2005. Clint Wheelock, an In-Stat analyst, predicts mobile TV revenues will explode from about $47.5 million this year to $1.9 billion by 2008.

ABI Research, in a separate report, concluded that TV delivered to cell phones is "inevitable." Its study points out that NEC, Nokia, Samsung and Toshiba now sell phones with built-in TV tuners for conventional broadcasts.

Until now, mobile carriers have resisted such devices because they don't believe such services raise their average revenue per users, according to ABI's principal semiconductor analyst, Alan Varghese.

He suggests, however, that the arrival of streaming video clips and interactive TV, both of which can generate new mobile traffic, is encouraging carriers to push small-screen TV.

So, what is a producer to do when creating video for such diverse reception equipment? Clearly, the panoramic splendor of an HD long shot is not very compelling on a two-inch screen. On the other hand, an extreme close-up that suits a tiny monitor is going to overwhelm viewers watching the same show on a 60-inch screen.

For now, developers do not seem to be thinking about such visual diversity or artistic challenges. Their focus is on creation and distribution of hardware and networks--not on the actual programming to be delivered.

In fact, most reports about the tiny TVs assume that they will be used for short-form content, such as news clips, music videos, sports highlights or cartoons. Not surprisingly, the startup CyberHome backpack Mini-DVD player package is bundled with "Scooby-Doo" episodes.

In fact, since the CyberHome player can only handle three-inch DVDs and CDs (the mini-discs often handed out for promotional presentations), the typical video capacity is only 34 minutes--double that for a dual-density disc. Hence, it would take several discs to show a typical feature film. The CyberHome player itself is about the size of a squared-off Big Mac--about four inches square and one inch thick. The clamshell top (like the top bun) flips up to expose the 2.5-inch active-matrix LCD screen.

Mobile phone and PDA TV receivers face even greater challenges, such as battery life and a payment structure--presuming that shows will be billed on some kind of metered pricing.

There are also questions about advertising, since mobile viewers may be even less willing to stay tuned for commercials than are captive couch potatoes.

Indeed, advertisers might not want their vivid commercials to be seen on tiny screens. (Admittedly, the portable monitor could actually find value for some advertisers as a handheld point-of-purchase device--pushing customized messages to viewers at or near a retail venue.)

The small-screen technology battle is already in full heat. Texas Instruments, which is developing its Hollywood chip for 2007 delivery, claims that its microprocessor will support both emerging DTV standards for mobile devices--DVB-H (for handheld, which is Euro-centric right now), and ISDB-T (integrated services digital broadcast-terrestrial), coming from Japan.

A TI manager was quoted in The New York Times enthusing that within four years, mobile users would be able to see 200 channels on their cell phones.

Qualcomm's emphasis is on creating a national network for transmission of mobile TV. The company plans to spend $800 million for its MediaFLO network, due to go online next year, using wireless frequencies that are distinct from the current voice and data services.

Still, it all comes back to the fundamental issue about how programs will be packaged and received via these tiny digital screens. Several skeptics have pointed out that even in this "always-on, connected" era, handheld TV poses new problems. Just hope that the driver in front of you or the airplane seatmate next to you is not a fanatic viewer, for obvious reasons.

Even bigger is the small matter of viewability. Will the availability of on-the-go video outweigh the experience of watching a vivid digital video program on a screen that's smaller than your business card? A lot of developers right now believe that if size matters, small is going to be very big.

Gary Arlen, a contributor to Broadcasting & Cable, NextTV and TV Tech, is known for his visionary insights into the convergence of media + telecom + content + technology. His perspectives on public/tech policy, marketing and audience measurement have added to the value of his research and analyses of emerging interactive and broadband services. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the long-time “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports; Gary writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs.