The world got its first glimpse at what could be the future of mobile telephony this week when Japanese company Kyocera unveiled the first mobile phone able to transmit a caller's video image and voice simultaneously.
The 165g VisualPhone uses 32Kbps analogue technology to transmit two colour images per second through a camera mounted on the top of the handset. The recipient can view the caller via a 2in active-matrix LCD.
A Kyocera spokesman said that the VisualPhone will retail for around 40,000 yen ($A487) 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. Kyocera does not currently have plans to market the phones overseas, according to a Kyocera spokesman.
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 (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 of Sweden and Qualcomm in the U.S., decided to harmonise their efforts in pursuing the next generation of mobile technology.
Japanese vendor NEC 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 32Kbps, making for jerky video images. W-CDMA, on the other hand, will be able to send 380Kbps 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.
The device is currently being shown at Business Show '99 Tokyo. The initial reaction from some attendees 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.
"Kyocera's phone is a kind of beta version," said Iba. "Still, it is a first."