After months of putting it off, I've finally bought myself a new mobile phone to replace the retro breezeblock that drew unwanted attention when I got it out in public. It was when children started to point and call me names in the street that it really became an issue. Of course, it took me a while to sift through the morass of plans, phones and networks, but I ended up being seduced by a rather lovely Motorola E1000. Aside from all of the (polyphonic) bells and whistles, one of the features that caught my attention was - you've guessed it - video support.
This brings me to this month's column, which is about what you can do to take mobile video a step further. I had planned to do something else entirely, but somehow I got sidetracked. I can't think why.
PDAs and smartphones are coming on in leaps and bounds, and so are the networks that serve them, but video across mobile networks is still severely constrained by bandwidth, storage capacity and display size, so the end result is a low resolution image that's been highly compressed.
As is so often the case with new technology, there's an unhealthy variety of competing formats available, but it would appear that the most widely supported standard is 3GPP (.3GP), which uses MPEG-4 or H.263 encoding to produce a video that runs at 15 frames per second (fps) at a resolution of 176x144 pixels. Although you can play with these settings a little, choosing resolutions up to 352x288 and different audio/video codecs, experience has shown me that this may well create a file that your handheld doesn't recognise. While the amount of video you can capture with your handset is usually limited to 15 seconds, there's actually a lot more you can do with this footage - as long as your handset or PDA supports downloading and uploading files from your PC.
Ulead, Pinnacle and Apple have all seen that mobile video is becoming increasingly widespread, and have adapted their video applications to take advantage of this growing interest. Ulead's VideoStudio 8, for example, has a plug-in that lets you edit and export 3GPP and 3GPP2 files. Pinnacle has a similar plug-in for Studio 9, adding an MPEG-4 QCIF export option along with MP3 and Dolby audio support, while Apple's QuickTime Pro 6.5.2 now has full 3GPP and 3GPP2 encoding/decoding support built in.
This means that you can take practically any video footage, including your own home video productions, and convert it into a format that your smartphone or PDA can play back.
The problem with all of these 3GPP tools, however, is the general lack of supporting documentation - something which is annoyingly mirrored by the absence of technical detail to be found in mobile phone manuals. So here's how you can create a 3GP file using the above programs. Ulead VideoStudio 8
Once you've downloaded and installed the plug-in ($US29.95 from www.asiapac.ulead.com/store/vs/runme.htm), you can run VideoStudio 8 as usual, creating a new project or loading one that you've prepared earlier.
When you're ready to go, click the Share button at the top of the screen, then Create Video File in the menu at the left. Select Custom from the drop-down menu that appears, and then click on the drop-down menu button to the left of the "Save as type:" box, before choosing 3GPP Files (see this screen shot). I had problems getting the default 3GPP settings working on my handset and had to change the video codec and resolution as a result. If you find that you're in the same boat, you may want to click on the Options button and then the General tab in the pop-up that appears.
Change the Frame size from 352x288 to 176x144 pixels and then click on the Compression tab. Here you can change the video from H.263 to MPEG-4. Leave the audio codec on AMR and the bit rates at 500 and 12.2Kbps, and you should have a file that plays back just fine.
One of the really useful things about the Ulead plug-in is that it lets you use 3GP files in your projects, so you can string the 15 second clips that you've taken with your phone into a much larger video. What lets this feature down terribly, though, is that there's no way to export them back to your phone without recompressing them, and this adds yet more compression artefacts to an already blurry, jerky picture.
Pinnacle Studio 9
While the advanced codec pack for Pinnacle Studio 9 doesn't let you import your phone's video files for editing, it does include an export feature that lets you export existing projects or files to a mobile .MP4 format. You also get Dolby 5.1 and MP3 export included for just Euro 8.61, which makes it a very useful addition. It's actually already installed along with the program; you just need to enable it by clicking on the Purchase Premium Content button (the little key in the top right corner) or going to http://unlock.pinnaclesys.com/premiumcontent/.
Once enabled, you can select this feature by creating a video project, then clicking on the Make Movie tab at the top of the program window. Click on the MPEG tab on the left, and then the Settings button. Click on Presets and then select MPEG-4 QCIF for Mobile Phones from the drop-down menu that appears (see this screen shot). Click on OK and then the Create MPEG file... button to start the rendering process.
Apple QuickTime Pro
Although it's not really a video editor, Apple's QuickTime Pro 6.5.2 ($59 from www.apple.com.au) is one of the best tools for the aspiring mobile video producer. Not only will the player let you view 3GPP and 3GPP2 files on your PC, the Pro version allows you to encode them, too.
If you're just transcoding a single file, like an AVI or MPEG-2 file, open it in the QuickTime player and select File-Export and then Movie to 3G under the Export drop-down menu. The Options button will let you change the file format, the video and audio codecs, frame rate and data (bit) rate of the file - while keeping it within 3GPP or 3GPP2 parameters.
If you want to stitch clips together, just drag them onto the player window in sequence. You can actually drop a new clip into the middle of an existing one by dragging the timeline marker (the down arrow just above the timeline) to the point you want before dropping the new file onto the player window. This will split the existing clip, placing the new one in between the cuts. You can also change the selected area by dragging the trim markers (the tiny triangles underneath the timeline) to suit.
TIP: if you're exporting the entire sequence, make sure that these markers are at each end of the timeline.
What makes QuickTime Pro so useful compared to the rest is that it lets you take 3GPP footage from your mobile and stitch it together in this fashion without recoding it. To do this, click on File-Export as before, select Movie to 3G, and click on Options. Click on the Video drop down menu and select Pass through. This will write your sequence to a new 3GP file without adding to the existing compression artefacts of your clips.
Now that you're done, all that remains is to transfer your finished video file back to your handset or PDA, either using the software that came with it, or by copying the data over to its removable storage (SmartMedia, TransFlash or Memory Stick Duo, for example) using a media reader.