World's first video cellphone comes online

The world got its first glimpse at what could be the future of mobile telephony this week when Japanese component vendor Kyocera unveiled the first cellular phone able to transmit a caller's video image and voice simultaneously. The 165-gram VisualPhone uses 32Kbit/s analog technology to transmit two color images per second through a camera mounted on the top of the handset. The recipient can view the caller via a 2-inch active-matrix LCD (liquid crystal display).

The world got its first glimpse at what could be the future of mobile telephony this week when Japanese component vendor Kyocera Corp. unveiled the first cellular phone able to transmit a caller's video image and voice simultaneously.

The 165-gram VisualPhone uses 32Kbit/s analog technology to transmit two color images per second through a camera mounted on the top of the handset. The recipient can view the caller via a 2-inch active-matrix LCD (liquid crystal display).

A Kyocera spokesman said that the VisualPhone will retail for around 40,000 yen (US$322) and that the company expects to sell 50,000 units in the first year following its release. The phone will ship in Japan from the end of July, Kyocera said. The device is currently being shown at Business Show '99 Tokyo which begun here Tuesday and will end tomorrow.

The Kyocera phone is a primitive example of what in coming years could be a flood of phones that handle multiple data types, including voice and video. Both handset makers and mobile service providers are preparing for the debut in coming years of 3G (third-generation) mobile phones, which will be able to receive high-capacity wideband services and high data-rate transmissions.

One of the contenders for the 3G cellular crown is W-CDMA (wideband code division multiple access) technology which is being championed by the mobile unit of Japanese telecom carrier Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. (NTT).

Though standards bodies won't decide on a 3G standard until November, W-CDMA received a boost in March when two cellular giants, L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. of Sweden and Qualcomm Inc. in the U.S., decided to harmonize their efforts in pursuing the next generation of mobile technology [See "Ericsson & Qualcomm Back Single Mobile Standard," March 25]

Japanese vendor NEC Corp. has developed a number of component technologies for video phones, but a spokesman said today the company will hold off on a product of its own until W-CDMA debuts.

"The market has not really developed yet for video phones, and NEC won't produce a handset until 2001 when NTT launches W-CDMA," said Yasuhito Jochi, a spokesman for NEC.

Jochi explained that current cellular technology data speeds are too slow to warrant consumers embracing video phones, perhaps the main reason why major telecom vendors have yet to jump on the video phone bandwagon.

The technology behind Kyocera's video cell phone is a mini-cellular technology found only in Japan, called PHS (personal handyphone). The transmission technology sends data at 32K bps, making for jerky video images. W-CDMA, on the other hand, will be able to send 380K bps or over 10 frames per second, creating smooth, seamless video, according to NEC's Jochi.

To use the video capabilities of Kyocera's VisualPhone, the caller must look into the camera by holding the handset in front of his or her face. The phone is equipped with an extra speaker to make the voice of the person to whom the caller is talking loud enough to be heard from a maximum of 40 centimeters away, the company said.

A 10,000-pixel CMOS sensor in the camera captures images and users can store up to 20 pictures in the form of JPEG (joint photographic experts group) files in the phone's memory. CMOS sensors use less power and are cheaper to fabricate than the older CCD (charge coupled devices) sensors still found in many digital cameras.

The phone measures 5.4cm by 14cm by 2.9 cm and is powered for approximately 60 minutes by a lithium ion battery.

Other vendors have been dabbling in video phones, but Kyocera's VisualPhone is the most comprehensive product to date.

Tsuka, a rival cellular phone maker, recently launched a product called La Pochee which transmits black-and-white still images of the caller. However, the egg-shaped device is primarily aimed at children and is not a serious communications tool, according to a spokesperson at Mitsubishi Electric Corp., which makes some of the technology in the device.

The initial reaction to Kyocera's video cell phone from some attendees at the Business Show in Tokyo this week was negative. Critics said that the device was too big, too heavy, and not stylish enough to have much impact on the fickle Japanese cellular market, according to Toshiaki Iba, a senior analyst at Tokyo-Mitsubishi Securities Co. Ltd.

"Kyocera's phone is a kind of beta version," said Iba. "Still, it is a first."

PHS carrier DDI Pocket will market the phones in Japan. Kyocera does not currently have plans to market the phones overseas, according to a Kyocera spokesman.

Kyocera can be reached at +81-3-3797-4602 or on the World Wide Web at http://www.kyocera.co.jp/. NTT, in Tokyo, can be reached at +81-3-3500-8033 or on the Web at http://www.ntt.co.jp/. Ericsson, in Stockholm, can be reached at +46-8-719-00-00 or on the World Wide Web at http://www.ericsson.com/. Qualcomm, in San Diego, California, can be reached at +1-619-587-1121 or at http://www.qualcomm.com/.

(Rob Guth in Tokyo contributed to this story.)

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