User experience inside your personal wireless cloud

This article relates to point # 6 of the MEX manifesto.

How would your relationship with your mobile change if you could use it to stream high quality video content to your wall-mouted plasma screen? What would be the impact on the various industries which exist to supply us with films, displays and mobile devices?

These are interesting questions and ones which may soon require an answer. Staccato Communications, an ultra-wideband (UWB) technology provider, today announced an agreeement with South Korean operator SK Telecom to develop handsets and services which enable personal area communications at speeds of up to 480 Mbs. SK will embed Staccato’s UWB technology in mobile handsets to launch a range of services such as downloading content from an access point, streaming to remote home entertainment systems and sharing content with other users in the vicinity (UWB has a range of about 10 metres).

There are several reasons why this is significant from a technological perspective. Firstly, it will represent the first mass-market deployment of UWB by a mobile network operator. Although still an emerging standard, UWB offers transmission speeds sufficient for a genuinely new class of multimedia applications. Staccato is also using a single-chip, CMOS platform to minimise costs, power consumption and integration challenges.

However, MEX is all about looking at things from the customer’s perspective and this is where the announcement becomes quite exciting. Surrounding yourself with a personal network cloud capable of sharing data at speeds of 480 Mbs opens a world of possibilities and could change the role of your mobile handset.

If you knew you could access all of the media content stored on your handset using any display, sound system or PC, would you start to rely on your mobile phone as your primary storage device? Why would you want a shelf full of DVDs, a PC loaded with all your music and a portable hard-drive stuffed with digital photos? Surely it would make more sense to have them all stored on the one device you always have with you.

Imagine a couple of scenarios: arriving at a friend’s house to watch a film – you simply connect your handset to their home cinema display and stream the film you want to show them. Or driving in your car and hearing your whole music collection through the in-vehicle audio system.

These are the use cases which will excite customers and drive adoption.

They’re also the kind of thing which cause nightmares for everyone in the industry, from network operators to content owners. Even in these two simple examples, there is a long list of potential problems: digital rights management (DRM), billing, control of the user interface and distribution capacity.

Let’s look at the example of the video scenario:

– The process starts with a studio producing the film and wanting to protect its copyright. This means the whole supply chain needs to embed compatible DRM technology.

– Distribution could be via a number of mechanisms:

  • An iTunes-style model where the content is downloaded to the PC and then synchronised to the phone. This raises questions about who controls the process and how the link between the PC and phone is established.
  • Direct delivery via the mobile network. Even the most advanced of today’s mobile networks would struggle to deliver the hundreds of megabytes of video content required for DVD quality film, let alone new high definition formats.
  • Delivery via a home broadband hub which links to the handset would offer the bandwidth required, but again raises questions over the management of the hub and whether the broadband provider is working in partnership or competition with the mobile operator which supplied the handset.
  • Retail distribution, using a wireless kiosk located in a store. The user would buy the film in the retail environment and receive it via UWB at the point-of-sale. This raises all sorts of questions about how retailers need to evolve when they are no longer selling physical merchandise. Perhaps entertainment stores like Virgin and HMV will evolve into places for socialising and previewing media rather than big warehouses full of boxes?

– Once the film is stored on the phone, there is immediately a question mark over capacity. Sony has just announced a new MemoryStick Duo format capable of storing 32 Gb and Samsung is already shipping handsets with 8 Gb hard-drives, but 100 Gb+ is more likely to the tipping point at which the handset becomes viable as *the* consumer storage device.

– And then there’s the interface issue. How do you control media playback? Do you use the interface on the handset as a remote control for displaying content on the larger display, or does your handset merely transfer the film to the screen so you can then use a separate remote?

– Battery life – will the handset last long enough to stream a two hour film?

– What about if you get a call in the middle of the movie? How can these sort of interrupts be handled?

– The presence of a UWB cloud around you also raises the possibility of you ‘selling’ that film to the friends you’re watching it with. Peer-to-peer (P2P) file transfer has long been the stuff of nightmares for the media industry, but attitudes are slowly changing and the potential opportunity is being recognised. When combined with an effective DRM and payments strategy, P2P actually becomes a very efficient way for media companies to distribute their content, reducing strain on the central delivery system by utilising bandwidth at the edge of the network. Far from preventing P2P activity, media companies may actually reward users who convince their friends to buy content by crediting them loyalty points or sales commission. And if the original user has seen the film enough times, what about an eBay-style application which allows them to sell it outright, just like they could if it was a physical product?

– Customer support – who do you contact if you have a problem? The handset manufacturer? The retailer who sold you the film? The display manufacturer? The network operator who did the billing and has branded your interface?

SK Telecom’s decision to push ahead with UWB deployment highlights the new world of complexity just waiting to be discovered as network edges gain more intelligence.

From a user experience perspective, interacting with the new generation of network participants that touch the personal area ‘cloud’ will give rise to a wide range of new interface modes. It will no longer be sufficient for your mobile device to be a great phone and a great camera – it will also need to be a great remote control, a great payment tool and countless other applications. This isn’t just about streaming films after all – UWB and other short range technologies provide a link to many aspects of the physical environment, from ticket booths to advertising billboards.

This is a hugely disruptive trend. That’s why we’ve made it one of our 10 manifesto points for the MEX conference:

“6. The world is gaining embedded intelligence. The mobile industry faces a fundamental user experience challenge to make handsets as effective as communicating with the environment as they are with other humans. We think the connection of millions of machines to wireless communication networks represents the most significant generational change since the introduction of packet data.”

The example above illustrates why everyone from media companies to network operators needs to start thinking about these issues today. The technology is seeping into the market and one day the industry will wake-up and find its customers are already enveloped in a short-area wireless cloud. The companies which can take responsibility for the user experience within that cloud will be the ones who command the largest share of the value.

Who that might be and how it could happen will be one of the questions we address at the MEX conference in May 2007.

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  1. 1

    Fantastic article and analysis. This is the beginning of a hugely disruptive trend. Its impossible to imagine all of the long-term implications as we sit here today but the article does a great job of touching on the obvious and some not so obvious ones. The DRM issue is a massive and tangled issue that won’t work itself out for a long time. But the short-term alternatives are the “walled garden” approach which seems to be working the best and simply moving video around at resolutions low enough so they don’t raise the ire of those that want it protected. HD is nice but for most of the real world usage models in the immediate future, simply having a bigger display than a cellphone provides is a huge benefit. Higher resolutions can come later when the DRM spaghetti works itself out.

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