The world of wireless animation is sneaking up on many of us. Christopher Harz outlines the current state of the industry, its players and its potential.
You hear a lot about animated content for the booming new wireless medium nowadays, and the reason for that is simple -- the display screens for most wireless devices such as cell phones or Palm-style PDAs are tiny, often with only 100 lines of resolution. This is not the place to see a video of Titanic, but animation shows up just fine. Another resounding reason for animation is that wireless typically has low data rates (with American phones it's at around 10Kbps), which can support animation but not bandwidth-hungry video. Finally, animation travels well internationally, and many or even most of the customers for wireless content are outside the U.S., in Europe and Asia. As a result, animated content for wireless is growing by leaps and bounds, with major studios such as Disney and game producers like THQ getting on board.
Many of the gee-whiz stories you hear these days would lead you to believe that the main market for multimedia wireless content is for PDAs (in either Palm or PocketPC flavors) or laptops, with content being delivered by online connection to the Internet. The reality is far different. The number of such devices that are online worldwide is still relatively small. The largest market right now for multimedia transmission is -- the cell phone. Cell phones can transmit multimedia in one of two ways: via text messaging (which goes through the phone company network like a normal voice call would) or by online connection to the Internet (which involves both a special type of cell phone and connection to a separate Internet Service Provider, which is not available for many areas in the world). Text messaging is by far the more common format students in Europe and Asia are almost as adept at quick-thumbing the buttons on their cell phones to send messages and graphics as they are at reading their textbooks.
Sesame Street characters get tech-savvy through digitized media found on i-mode phones producing instant popularity with female users in Japan. © 2002 Sesame Workshop. All rights reserved.
"There are over 600 million cell phones worldwide, and customers are used to paying for extra features," says Randy Boyer, VP of business development at Fun Mail (www.funmail.com), which enables cell phone users to add animated characters to their text messages. Text messaging, based on SMS (Short Message Service) and other formats, is huge worldwide -- over 10 billion such messages were sent last year, at costs of up to 15 cents per message. Companies that provide animated applications for such messaging share a percentage of these revenues. One application is for enhancing messages. "Why just send a text message inviting someone for pizza, when you can send an animated Garfield or South Park character munching pizza slices?" asks Boyer, whose company has a technology that automatically adds appropriate animation sequences to messages. An even bigger application for this type of phone transmission is gaming. Telcos love SMS games because they mean extra revenue from existing cell phones. The introduction of SMS games by Cellcom in Israel led to a 20% increase in SMS messaging in the first month alone.
The most advanced form of messaging is the new MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) format. Adobe recently announced that its version of Flash-type animation, called GoLive 6.0, would enable authoring applications for the MMS format for Nokia mobile phones; developers can now create services that include audio, images and video with what was originally a purely text-based telephone application.
Whereas messaging is by far the most common form of delivering graphics on cell phones, some companies have been very successful in delivering via modified Internet protocols. One of the most financially successful telcos is NTT DoCoMo, whose i-mode phones provide always-on online connection for over 20 million Japanese. Thousands of developers supply content such as cartoons to DoCoMo, which supplies them to its users for additional monthly fees. DoCoMo found that mobile entertainment was the reason for 52% of its wireless revenues. Recently, the Sesame Workshop started supplying content on i-mode phones that features Sesame Street characters such as Big Bird and Elmo. "The show's engaging characters and universal messages translate seamlessly into this digitized media," says Martha Van Gelder, group vice president at Sesame Workshop. As soon as this animated content debuted it became the 8th most popular service among female users in Japan.
Gaming is huge on cell phones, whether delivered by SMS or Internet-type protocols. Research firm DataMonitor says that one in six U.S. cell phone subscribers, or 21.6 million people, will play games on mobile phones this year, and forecasts that 93 million people will be playing wireless games in 2006. One of the best known companies specializing in cell phone games is JAMDAT Mobile (www.jamdatgames.com), supposedly so named because it's easy to dial "JAMDAT" with your thumb on a cell phone (try it!). JAMDAT's founders used to work for Activision, so the company's love for gaming runs deep. Its Gladiator game has been played by over a million players, who have generated 15 million minutes of usage, making it the most successful wireless game to date. JAMDAT has developed a suite of software tools that speeds the development of mobile games. It also functions as a typical game publisher, paying advances to developers before a game launches, and then royalties against those advances after the game is published. In addition to game titles it controls, JAMDAT also licenses branded characters from other sources. It has teamed with Electronic Arts, THQ, Hasbro and other major publishers to offer mobile versions of their games, such as EA Sports PGA Tour, Sports FIFA World Cup 2002 and Tiger Woods Golf.
Walt Disney Internet Group (WDIG) is also providing games for phones. It recently announced a partnership with Sprint to provide three games -- Disney/Pixar's Monsters, Inc., Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire and ESPN's 2-Minute Drill -- on Sprint's PCS Wireless Web. Monsters, Inc. features a mobile maze in which players catch screams and achieve status as professional Monsters, Inc. kid scarers. The game offers 20 levels of play. For Atlantis, players must reveal the faces and talents of potential team members and then set off on a quest. 2-Minute Drill throws rapid-fire questions from a variety of sports categories at players, similar to the eponymous show on ESPN television.
Personal Digital Assistants
PDAs, although not as common as cell phones, have an advantage over their smaller wireless cousins: they have much better processing power and storage, allowing much more complex games and other graphic presentations. Basic animation authoring tools and players such as Adobe's GoLive and Acrobat Reader as well as Macromedia's Flash have long been available for various kinds of PDAs. PDAs also have larger screens, up to 400 lines of resolution, with concise colors. Finally, some PDAs can accept removable media such as Compact Flash cards, which allow large amounts of store-and-forward content, where detailed content or game characters and terrains can be downloaded to the card from a desktop PC, and then uploaded into the PDA; companies such as CinemaElectric (www.cinemaelectric.com) provide content that can be downloaded and played on certain PDAs in this manner. PDA users can also purchase animated content including games from new services such as nReach (www.nreach.com), which is setting up Mobile Content Kiosks at airports and other high-traffic locations around the U.S.; the customer inserts his Compact Flash or other media card, downloads the content that he wants after paying for it, and inserts it into his PDA (cell phones will also have media cards in the near future).
Games have been a staple of PDAs from the earliest models that Palm came out with. New forms of entertainment include Eruptor Entertainment's (www.eruptor.com) PortaPets, which are animated characters such as pet fish and cats that can be downloaded and interacted with. Eruptor's latest offerings include PortaPam, based on Pamela Anderson, and PortaBush, which allows the user to interact with a highly animated form of the American President.
In theory, portable PCs, with their powerful graphics cards and fast processors, should be able to play the same online higher-resolution videos and games that desktop PCs can. In practice, however, the data rates available over wireless networks limit this considerably. Several companies are working on getting around the limitations of bandwidth. face2face (www.fwfanimation.com) is one of several companies with technology that models human faces, enabling high-quality videoconferencing with perfect lip sync even with low connectivity rates by showing a high-res 3D model of a person's face to the viewer, rather than a video of the person.
The nirvana for laptop users is access to WI-FI. With Bluetooth or similarly enabled WLANs (Wireless Local Area Networks), users can access entertainment content and games at full broadband speeds in places where WI-FI is available, such as airports or coffee shops.
In addition to general-purpose laptops there are several special-purpose portable computers on the market that are smaller in form and lower in price than the typical Compaq or Dell offering. Cybiko (www.cybiko.com), with funding from AOL Time Warner, has launched its CyX2 handheld computer that enables wireless chat and interactive multi-player gaming, and comes with interchangeable face plates and game pads. The CyX2 weighs only about a third of a pound and measures 5.6 x 3.2 x .07 inches, yet offers a QWERTY keyboard and 2.5 MB of storage onboard. Teenagers are the targeted market for this device, which lets users share games with others by transmitting them wirelessly from one CyX2 to another.
The Future Looks Bright...
There are a number of other applications that are starting up slowly but promise to become huge markets. Location-Based Gaming (LBG) is a specialized form of gaming that takes advantage of the fact that cell phone networks know where a particular user is located to within a few hundred feet. That makes it possible to play games that depend upon a specific real-world location. Ludigames's GeoQuest, for instance, forces the gamer to visit five places in Marseilles, France, and solve five puzzles in order to find a fictional kidnapped girlfriend. Solving a puzzle quickly yields points and clues to the location of the next puzzle. Orbital, by Infraworlds, is a multi-player game that assigns missions in different city areas called "planets," each with markets and drop zones to pick up and deliver information and supplies. The wildly popular wireless game BotFighters in Sweden allows a player to create a customized "robot" that's housed in one's mobile handset. When a player's "radar" notifies him that an enemy robot is within range, he can zap him with an electronic bullet; the unlucky victim is notified that he's been bushwhacked by a series of electronic beeps. Serious players of BotFighters play half an hour a day and pay $5 to $10 a month on top of regular cellular phone charges, which warms the hearts of both game developers and cell phone carriers.
Another new application is interactive outdoor advertising, in which animated displays in airports, supermarkets and other venues react to customers with targeted advertising. A futuristic form of this is shown in the film Minority Report. Near-future versions involve flat-panel displays on various surfaces that are triggered off by a specially keyed item that has been given to a customer, such as a shopping cart or a "smart" admission ticket. Advertisers are anxious to use wireless technology to reach potential customers and get feedback from them, but there is benefit to the customer as well. "Interactive ads can give a customer useful information instead of just flooding him with clutter," says Wolfgang Kratzenberg, COO of Expresso, a company which is developing interactive ad delivery technology.
Specializing in modeling human faces, face2face has been one of the key developers in high-end video conferencing. Images courtesy of face2face. FACE MODEL: © Ralph Lemon/Cori Haveson; FAP SOURCE: © Lipsynch by Cori Haveson; AUDIO SOURCE: © James Baldwin, 1973; DESIGN: © Wayne Ashley/Ralph Lemon.
One sign of the future potential of wireless is the size of the companies that are committing to it. Microsoft and Qualcomm have formed a joint venture named Wireless Knowledge to create next-generation wireless gaming applications. Motorola teamed with Sega to develop games for its handsets. Ericsson formed a joint venture with Sony to develop cell phone entertainment. A few years ago it would have seemed preposterous that a phone company would have an entertainment division. But recently the cell phone giant Nokia formed Club Nokia, an online community that allows Nokia handset users to download games from the Web.
In summary, if you are a customer buying a wireless device, you can look toward a future filled with numerous animated games and other entertainment offerings to pass the time during increasingly long commuting periods. If you are an animated content developer, you may want to consider producing for the cell phone market. Cramming compelling content into a 2-inch screen may not be as glamorous as producing high-res games for a PlayStation 2, but the demand for such content is growing by leaps and bounds. Although a developer's take may only be a penny from each minute of cell phone usage, remember the number 600 million. DataMonitor estimates that just wireless gaming will be worth $6 billion in the U.S. and Europe by 2005, with Asia even bigger. Now, that's a lot of pennies.
Christopher Harz is a program and business development executive for new media enterprises, working with digital animation companies around the world. He is a technical editor at Animation Magazine, and writes extensively for trade magazines on topics including Internet animation, visual effects for films and television, video games and wireless media. Mr. Harz was previously VP of marketing and production at Hollyworlds, producing 3D Websites and video games for films such as Spawn, The 5th Element, Titanic and Lost in Space, and for TV shows such as Xena, Warrior Princess. At Perceptronics as SVP of marketing and program development, Mr. Harz helped build the first massive-scale online animated game worlds, including production of the $240 million 3D animation virtual world, Simnet. He also worked on combat robots and war gaming at the Rand Corporation, the American military think tank.