Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

A Convergence Anomaly…August 2004

While waiting for my connecting flight in the Denver airport a few weeks ago, I was observing the interaction between what I presumed was a grandmother and her approximately eight-year-old granddaughter. The grandmother was taking photos of the child with her cell phone camera and then showing them to the granddaughter – mostly I think to pass the time. They were both having great fun with this activity, and it seemed that the grandmother was especially enthralled with this feature on her new cell phone.

From a logical engineering perspective, this made little sense to me. Why was it so much fun to click off images on a cell phone? Wouldn’t it have been easier and more enjoyable to use a small digital camera instead? But for reasons that I can’t completely explain, the cell phone did seem to create a more playful mood. In this case, I don’t think either the grandmother or the young girl were especially interested in sending these images to their friends or other family members. They were simply having fun capturing playful images of the young girl on the cell phone display

My first experience with seeing the combination of a cell phone with a digital camera was on a trip to Japan a few years ago. At that time, I thought this was a pretty silly idea and that the “fad” would soon pass. Well, so much for thinking like an engineer. This unlikely combination it seems is not only here to stay but is growing in popularity.

In past columns, we have discussed some of the fundamental principles that can guide us in assessing whether certain technologies can be combined with others -- or not. The most basic of these fundamental principles is that the technology convergence candidates must have compatible life cycles. For example, it does not make sense to make a PC an integral part of a home’s heating and lighting systems. Those systems typically have more than fifty-year life cycles whereas the PC will become obsolete in just a few years. The second fundamental is that the convergent technologies must have similar reliability expectations. I don’t want a computer controlling my car if it is going to "crash” every few days at unpredictable times. A third fundamental is the environmental compatibility of how we use the technologies being considered for convergence. For example, if we typically watch television from across the room and with other family members present, it’s not likely that we will also want to do our e-mails on this same screen – no matter what the major software developers do to try to convince us otherwise.

Companies in search of new opportunities often try to promote new products that violate these fundamental principles. The typical market response is that there is an initial enthusiasm in the technical and popular press, and a few buyers with ample discretionary income are enticed to buy these products, but soon the interest fades and there is no mainstream penetration.
So what about the combination of a cell phone with a digital camera? Somewhat surprisingly, this combination does not seem to violate any of the three fundamental principles I have put forth. The life cycles of digital cameras and cell phones are roughly the same, and so is their reliability. In fact, in this case the two are really independent functions and the failure of the camera would not necessarily make the cell phone useless. The usage environment is also compatible. Therefore, even as a practical engineer, perhaps I should have been less critical of this combination when I first saw it being appreciated by a group of young Japanese schoolgirls. I have to admit that there really is something fascinating about being able to call someone and then send them a photo of where you are and what you are doing. Perhaps this fits the traditional saying of “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Having achieved success with this technology combination, it is a given that innovative product engineers are already exploring the next possible “feature” extensions. Currently, there seem to be two new opportunities. One is to take the still-picture and/or limited-motion video transmission capability to the next obvious step of full video. The other is to try to transmit some modified version of television programming over the cell phone network. In both cases, if this works it will be a revival of past efforts that did not pan out.

About forty years ago, Bell telephone introduced the world to the picture phone. The “picture phone” was also prominently featured in the movie 2001- A Space Odyssey. However, even when the technology became reasonably affordable there was no great consumer demand for adding video to our telephone conversations. In fact, it was the opposite. People didn’t want others to see them when they were perhaps in their overly casual at-home dress. Will the difference now be that the cell phone is used more when we are in public and our appearance is more acceptable? Or has society become more accepting of casual dress in general? The answer to this question is just as puzzling as the logic behind the combination of a cell phone and a digital camera. Personally, I see no benefit to transmitting my picture to the recipient of my phone call. There may even be times when I don’t want that person to know that I am reading my e-mails while participating in a conversation that has a frustratingly low rate of information exchange.

But is there enough value to others for sending video while they are travelling on business or on vacation? There may just be sufficient interest to make this technology work in such an outside-the-home environment, whereas it did not work for typical telephone usage in times past. For the travelling businessperson calling home to talk to the family, conversations with the spouse and younger children could have more meaning if there is video to accompany the voice transmission. Maybe the new environments that encompass the mobile traveler will be enough to create a consumer demand where there was not one before.

Will something similar happen with portable TV? Today’s portable TVs are at best in the novelty category. The reception is marginal and the displays are of low resolution and too dim for most environments. Outdoors, they are pretty useless. So what needs to change for a cell phone to become a useful device for the reception of video programming? The quality of the reception may improve through the use of G3 technology. But it seems to me that for sustained watching, the quality of the display will have to be better and the battery life will have to be more than the few hours we have in current models. Also I think the programming may have to be customized to the typical usage environment of a travelling cell phone user. The “programs” may have to be no longer than five or ten minutes. The typical half-hour television broadcast may be too long for viewing during a train commute or during an airport wait for a connecting flight. Perhaps the technology will get started with short video clips about items of interest to travelling users and then expand to encompass more traditional story material. In any case, the technology capability will be there to allow for the exploration of new and interesting ways to get information to a potentially large audience.

Is there a cell phone TV with “picture phone” capability in your future? Would you use it if you had it? Let me know. You may contact me directly from this site, by e-mail at, by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by FAX at 425-898-1727.