Mobile TV Might Suck, But It Could Earn You $$

You might not have noticed that Snell & Wilcox doesn't yet sell television directors.

Yes, this will be another rant-and-rave about mobile TV.

Me thinks I should start with that name. Folks who study these things say that most of the use of "mobile" devices for entertainment occurs in homes. I am not making this up. But, heck, I'd still rather call it mobile TV than one of the more popular alternatives, "wireless TV." Call me old-school, but I believe the transmitters used by broadcasters have always been for wireless reception.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Snell & Wilcox.

They might not (yet) sell TV directors, but they sure as heck sell conversion products that take one form of video and change it into another. They've got some of the best international standards converters, and I seem to recall a few display optimizers that made video projectors look awesome by sending them some strange numbers of pixels per line, lines per frame, and frames per second.

They even showed something called Gazelle that could make smooth, fluid slow motion out of any old TV signal. It never became a product only on account of costing something like the gross national product of Kuwait, but the pictures looked great.

So, if Snell & Wilcox says their new Helios "software-based conversion platform" can convert HDTV to a standard that'll work on a mobile phone screen, I believe them. But, when they say it'll make "the dream of 'Master Once, Distribute Anywhere' a reality," I beg to differ.

There are around a bazillion reasons why people won't want to watch TV on their mobile phones. During the recent football-er, soccer-World Cup, those companies offering video via 3G technology found that when 10 customers watched in one cell, it shut the system down.

The more "advanced" systems, like DVB-H, take about 6 seconds to change channels. But fear not! The latest announcements say that, by losing efficiency and sending more I-frames, they can get the channel-change time down to a mere 1.2 seconds. Rejoice while you wait!


Let me see. You know how your new mobile phone's battery is supposed to last on a single charge for about a year of standby and a month of talking? Better drop that to maybe 3 hours, if you're really lucky, when you're watching video.

The biggie, naturally, is the screen size, which is why Snell & Wilcox's Helios ain't going to do much good unless they throw in a TV director. Here's the deal. Mayhap you have gone shopping for an HDTV and found a store running the PBS HD stuff which consists of wide shots of beautiful scenery around the world.

Wide shots show off HD's resolution, and beautiful scenery looks beautiful, especially when you're standing in a store aisle about a foot away from a 60-inch screen. So let me see if I get this "Master Once, Distribute Anywhere" concept straight.

Helios can take the fly-by HD wide shots and change them to QCIF or whatever the mobile phone wants. It can take the 30 or 60 frames a second and convert them to 15 or 10. It can take the 16:9 aspect ratio and make it 3:4 or even 9:16 to match those vertically oriented phone screens. But it ain't going to be able to convert two hours of wide shots to three minutes of close-ups. Come to think of it, even if they throw in a director, she'll have a hard time doing that unless she's got a re-shoot budget.

Did I mention that mobile phones ain't the only mobile TV devices? There are iPods and PlayStation Portables and digital media players and even notebook computers. Every one of them has its own spatial and temporal resolution and aspect ratio. Which one does Helios convert to? "Master once"? Ha!

So broadcasters ain't in imminent danger of losing the bulk of their audience to mobile TV systems. But there's a "but."


You've just heard the rant. Here comes the rave.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, back in April about 79 percent of the U.S. had mobile phones. Maybe-just maybe-a few of them would be willing to pay a shekel or two to watch the end of "American Idol" or the last game of the World Series or the local weather in southern Alabama during hurricane season (going mobile in Mobile). Those are shekels broadcasters wouldn't otherwise get, and a small percentage of 4/5 of the United States can quickly add up to a big bag of them.

So maybe straight conversion of broadcasts ain't the craziest idea in the world. But then there's the question of how to get the shows out there. Hiwire, MediaFLO, and Modeo have plans for getting video to mobile TV devices in the U.S., and, believe it or not, the Mobile DTV Alliance (which covers Hiwire's and Modeo's DVB-H) is working out such questions as dealing with 5.1-channel surround sound and TiVo-like DVR storage. Again, I am not making this up.

Well, that might earn a few shekels for those mobile TV folks and the owners of the shows, but it ain't going to do squat for U.S. broadcasters. In Japan, the mobile TV service is called One-Seg on account of it being just one of the 13 segments of the ISDB-T terrestrial digital-TV system, transmitted by the same broadcast transmitters that feed digital TVs.

Brazil just adopted a version of Japan's system; the U.S. didn't. But now that shekels have been sniffed, a bunch of folks are trying to squeeze mobile TV out of the U.S. digital-TV system, too. For instance, there's Rohde & Schwarz's and Samsung's A-VSB, which can maybe handle 170 mph Doppler effects.

Hey, here's a thought. If most folks use mobile devices at home (and a bunch probably use them at the office or in places like Starbucks), maybe we could give up some speed for faster deployment. But who needs money?