Digital video goes mobile

Taking video on the road has never been easy -- cumbersome video cassette players or expensive portable DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) players have meant that recorded TV shows and movies are best watched at home.

Now Japan's consumer electronics giants are dreaming of freeing video from the home and allowing people to enjoy their choice of viewing while on the move -- whether on the subway commute to work, at the office or while waiting to see the doctor. The first prototypes of such devices were on show Tuesday as the CEATEC exhibition opened just outside Tokyo.

Taking digital video on the road became a reality less than a year ago when Sharp Corp. built an MPEG4 player into its Zaurus PDA (personal digital assistant) and started selling a digital video recorder. The latest version of the PDA, which went on sale in September, includes a built-in video recorder and allows users to record television or other video content and watch it while outside of the home. Now developers are taking the idea a step further and prototyping stand-alone players for digital video stored on memory cards.

Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. was displaying a digital video player and companion video recorder at the show. The player had a 3.8 inch Polysilicon LCD (liquid crystal display) and a slot for Compact Flash (CF) memory cards.

The video recorder, which doubles as a docking station for the display, records video onto the CF card in MPEG4 format at QVGA (320 by 240 pixel) resolution, which is equivalent to conventional television, at 15 frames per second, which is half that of television. A 256M byte card can hold around an hour of video, a company representative said. The prototype could also be used to browse the Internet.

Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., better known by its Panasonic brand name, had a smaller prototype video player on its stand. The player accepts Secure Digital (SD) memory cards and has a 2 inch TFT (thin film transistor) display. The player incorporates both a USB (Universal Serial Bus) and conventional video input, said a company representative on the stand.

Alongside it, Matsushita was also showing a prototype multimedia player that includes all of the features of the video player plus a digital camera.

No further information on either product was available.

Both Sanyo and Matsushita stressed the products on show at CEATEC were prototypes and decisions on whether to launch them as commercial products have yet to be made. Launch schedules and pricing have also not been decided.

Toshiba Corp. was showing a prototype that does have a planned launch date: a cellular telephone handset that can play MPEG4 digital video. The phone is expected to be one of several that go on sale in December this year when Japanese cellular carrier Au launches its new "EZmovie" video service. Using the handset, consumers will be able to watch digital video on their cellular phone screens.

A similar application is also due for launch by NTT DoCoMo Inc. at around the same time. NTT DoCoMo launched its 3G (third-generation) Foma service on Monday and is planning to upgrade the system to allow for video-on-demand services by the end of the year.

Photograph: Sanyo's digital video player.

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Martyn Williams

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