3D display could be a killer app for wireless

A scantily clad, Barbie doll-like figure is the star attraction of the first phone capable of displaying 3D images. But will she help 3D phones spark sales in the industry?
Written by Ben Charny, Contributor

Her name is Ulala. She sashays as she walks, her tiny waist pivoting, her pencil-thin arms swinging like a runway model's. She lives in the 16bit colour screen of J-Phone's new J-SHO7 mobile phone.

Ulala is the animated and pixel-perfect star attraction of the world's first phone capable of displaying 3D images, which was introduced this week and should start hitting store shelves in Japan by the end of June.

Her scantily clad, Barbie doll-like figure raises eyebrows of those who see her in full 3D glory on the phone's tiny screen. But she's also raising questions of whether 3D phones and applications will spark sales in the wireless industry.

Alan Reiter, an industry analyst with Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing, has mixed views on the use of 3D in mobile phones. "For games and pornography, it sounds great," Reiter said. "But for e-commerce, I think it's more of a 'manslaughter app' than a 'killer app.'"

Three-dimensional technology is among the myriad applications that mobile phone companies and providers such as Cingular, Nokia and J-Phone may soon offer. Many of these same companies have flocked to this week's JavaOne conference in San Francisco to find the next "killer app" to push wireless devices and services toward greater revenue.

The hunt is on because, having lost revenue as the price of telephone calls declines, the mobile phone industry is trying to find new ways to make profits. Most are in the midst of creating higher-speed phone networks to offer subscribers new services such as wireless games and the ability to take pictures or surf the Internet.

Others, like Nextel Communications, let subscribers download software to their phones. But the applications, including calculators and games, are at best rudimentary. In Europe, cell phone applications are more sophisticated, letting people send short text messages, download new ring tones or even play videos.

In Japan, where NTT DoCoMo is the first in the world to introduce a next-generation, or 3G, service, the applications get even more sophisticated. Mobile phones can receive video and other moving images, for example.

But now 3D imagery is the next logical step in the progression toward more sophisticated cell phone applications, said Kazuo Aoki, service development department vice president at J-Phone.

Three-dimensional technology for mobile phones is different from the 3D in the movies. Wireless 3D does not require wearing red and blue or green tinted glasses. And the 3D images on wireless phones don't appear to leap out at the viewer. Instead, the images are shaded and shaped to give them greater depth. The images also can be rotated, or viewed at different angles, adding to the perception of a 3D image.

"It would take a lot more data to get that level of expression [without 3D]," Aoki said. "I'm amazed that nobody else is thinking about this."

Wireless games would benefit from 3D technology, Aoki said. Perhaps, he said, businesses hoping to sell their wares to people who shop online via mobile phones will create Web sites where consumers can get a 360-degree view of the product.

Toy maker FAO Schwarz already features 3D on its Web site. Some images of toys online can be rotated 360 degrees and disassembled. Those products have proven to show strong sales, according to the company.

Although 3D technology presents potential benefits, it is not a regular addition to most Internet content. Use of 3D on the Internet has some successes but overall hasn't been adopted at the rate that most in the graphics industry had hoped. Some analysts and consumers wonder whether 3D will face a similar fate in the wireless industry.

Many on the JavaOne conference trade show floor had the same reaction to J-Phone's 3D phone. Some showgoers agreed the 3D technology looks cool, and early adopters will probably clamor to get the phones, but the mass market still isn't ready for that level of sophistication in a wireless phone application.

"It looks interesting, but only as a toy," said Lincoln Lee, an executive with the Bank of Nova Scotia who was at the JavaOne conference to explore mobile banking options for his company. "But I think they are just showing the flash."

Jim Deneumoustier, technical marketing specialist for BitFlash, which sells technology for delivering maps and other graphics to cell phones, said 3D takes a lot of computing power to generate. Computing power is a rare commodity on the tiny cell phone operating system.

"It's hard enough to get anything to happen on a mobile device, let alone 3D," Deneumoustier said. But not everyone is as dismissive.

"There will eventually be a market for it," said Aron Kozak, a spokesman for Trolltech, a wireless software company. "I don't know how widely it'll be used, though."

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