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Mobile IoT: Article

Getting the Whole Picture

A movie on your phone? Why not? We thought we'd give it a try...

Is it possible to get an entire film onto a mobile phone or PDA? Would it be a practical viewing experience? We started with a DVD, then used only free software in an attempt to view the film on a Nokia 3650 handset, a Microsoft Pocket PC device, and a PalmPilot.

Everyone seems to be talking about getting video into your pocket, from network operators to the latest Silicon Valley startup. The dream of being able to watch videos in the palm of your hand (or, more importantly, to collect revenues from users watching movies on the move) is alive and well. Of course, no one knows what kind of video content users will pay for (though Big Brother in the UK did well selling video clips to owners of 3650s), and streaming is still a black art which has shown little efficaciousness; downloading and playback are still the order of the day, ideally by MMS.

But if it were possible to get an entire film onto a mobile phone or PDA, would it make a practical viewing experience? Would it even be possible to get a film onto a phone? Onto the latest Symbian handset or PDA? We decided the latter problem was the most interesting, and that the process might lead to exploration of the former.

Getting a film with which to try this experiment wasn't difficult. There is a great deal of free video material available on the Internet, some of which is most entertaining. My personal favorite is www.archive.org, where you can download U.S. government information and other films from the last 100 years. But we wanted a proper, full-length movie, so the plan was to start with a DVD, and then use only free software to attempt to get that film viewable on a Nokia 3650 handset, a Microsoft Pocket PC device, and a PalmPilot. We selected "The Fifth Element" as an appropriate film and started with the DVD.

Getting the Content
DVDs are protected against this kind of thing, not to stop people from watching on their phones, but to prevent illegal copying. Luckily for us the protection isn't very good, and the easily obtainable DVD Decrypter from LIGHTNING UK started the process by collecting the information from the DVD and placing it on the hard disc. This process isn't for the fainthearted; you'll need around 5GB of free disc space, and it takes about 30 minutes to lift a whole DVD. When you first run DVD Decrypter you'll notice that your DVD contains a number of video files. These may make up the "Extra Content" or animations. The length of these files is displayed and you should be able to work out which one to decrypt based on that. What you end up with is a single AVI file of about 5.85GB, depending on the length of your chosen movie. Remember that AVI isn't a format, just an extension, and AVI files may exist in a number of different formats.

That's a good start, but the file is still massive and not in a very useful format. Next we need to translate it into something we can work with (not yet something we can play back on the handsets; we're still some way from there). FlasKMPEG is a software package from Alberto Vigatá for just such purposes; it can convert the files we've pulled off the DVD into something we can use. It's not the most intuitive package to use, requiring you to first open the file you want to convert, then to remember to select an output format before converting it (using Options | Output Format Options).

As we don't particularly care about this format - it's just an intermediary, and quality is something we gave up when we decided a phone would be a good place to watch a movie - we selected Microsoft Video 1 for video and PCN for audio. Converting video is not a fast process, and, impressive as FlasKMPEG is, it still takes several hours to perform the conversion. When it's done, however, you're left with an AVI of your movie that you can play back in your choice of PC video-viewing software. This won't reduce the size much; "The Fifth Element" came out at 3.55GB after encoding into Microsoft Video 1.

If you've got the patience, FlasKMPEG can also alter the video in a number of ways, changing the resolution, or cropping and stretching wide-screen movies to a more suitable shape for the device. Doing so, however, slows down the already painfully slow conversion process. (To be fair, in the FlasKMPEG FAQ, the first question is "Why is it so slow?" to which the answer is "...the program is free," which is a very fair response for a remarkably powerful application).

But that's still not all that we're after: we have one more conversion stage to work through, and we've still to establish if the whole thing is actually possible. Now the process diverges depending on the device you ultimately want to play back on.

Pocket PC
Windows Media Encoder is available free from the Microsoft Web site, and enables content to be encoded in a variety of formats, including those suitable for the Pocket PC. Encoding is pretty fast; you can choose to have the video in wide-screen or normal, and reducing the audio quality can reduce the size of the final file.

Once encoded you should end up with something around 200MB. This can be reduced only slightly, and quite a bit of processing is needed for playback. Viewing on the Pocket PC is very good. The Media Player application will run in landscape mode, making best use of the screen, so wide-screen presentations look really good. While we were encoding different things we did lose lip-sync a few times, which required re-encoding to fix. This was probably due to doing too many things on the machine doing the encoding. If left alone, the problems went away.

Video was played back on an O2 Xda II and iPaq Pocket PC from MMC card. We were able to watch the whole film and do some work before the batteries died on us, but two viewings wouldn't be possible without a high-capacity battery.

PalmPilot
The new PalmPilots have pushed their multimedia capabilities, an area where they are often seen as inferior to their Pocket PC rivals. There is only one option for encoding files for the Palm and that's Kinoma Producer for Palm. If you've got one of the latest models, then this software comes free, but if not, your only approach is to buy a copy.

We did look around for free encoding systems for the Palm, but were disappointed. Such solutions that do exist didn't really scale to our project (encoding an entire film), so, while there is some interesting work being done, right now it's commercial software or nothing. As we had access to a new Palm Tungsten 3 we weren't forced to break our free software-only rule.

Encoding our film using Kinoma Producer was easy, if not fast. Using the machine for anything else while encoding seemed to cause some lip-sync problems, but the process was very simple. Options are very limited (apparently there is a "Professional" version of Kinoma Producer, but that would cost money) so we converted everything as full/wide-screen. The quality was very good, but the lack of processing power on the Palm did show in the file sizes. By using less compression it's easier to get the video onto the screen, but the encoded film comes in at almost 400MB, not easy to get onto a Palm. A modern MMC card was used to fit it on and allowed smooth playback.

Viewing on the Palm went pretty well. The video looked very good, but the smaller screen does mean smaller video, and the player won't use the expanded screen of the Tungsten 3. You could certainly watch a whole film, and perhaps almost two, but then the battery would let you down. Extending the battery life on a Palm isn't easy, so on a long flight you'd have to ration your video viewing.

Symbian Mobile Phones
There are several software packages available for playing back video on a Symbian handset, but Real One is included in the 3650, so it made sense to try using that. We downloaded the Helix Producer and tried just encoding and copying the file, but that didn't work. Much mucking about revealed that if you want to encode content for Real using Helix you need a specific Job File. We downloaded one of those, but when we tried to install it, Helix dropped out, saying we had to buy the commercial version. Two-hundred dollars might be very reasonable for a development company, but for this particular madness it seemed excessive, so we looked elsewhere.

The Real One player used in the 3650 can also play back ".3gp" files - video files encoded to a standard set by the 3GPP consortium (who develops standards for GSM networks). The files are actually encoded in MPEG4 or H.263 and have the extension ".3gp". This standard is used for MMS messages containing video, and video recorded on the 3650 is also in this format. We tried encoding some content using MPEG4 and just copying it over but didn't get anywhere, so some sort of transcoding would be necessary.

On the verge of giving up, we suddenly came across the Nokia Multimedia Converter, an ideal tool created for the job. This application is free from Nokia, and can encode AVI files into .3gp for playback on a Nokia handset. It's written in Java, so it's not fast, but it still manages a respectable speed (taking about 2 hours to encode the whole movie). It actually encodes into the H.263 format, which is more efficient than MPEG4, so the file sizes should be small.

So we now had our movie. The sizes showed that the whole thing was well under 50MB, it fit easily onto the 128MB maximum officially supported by the MMC memory cards usable in the Nokia 3650 (though we managed to get a 512MB card working without any problems). The next problem was how to select the file for playback.

If you have Handy File (an excellent file manager for Series 60 phones) then it's no problem, just select the file. But Handy File costs money (albeit well spent money), and as one of our requirements was that the whole process shouldn't cost anything, we looked to Real One to be able to open the file. We had copied the file (Fifth.3pg) onto the root of the MMC card, so we knew the path would be "E:\Fifth.3gp", though Real refused to recognize the file when browsing. We next tried to enter the address as a URL, but hit a problem in that you can't type a backslash when entering a URL. Remembering the copy and paste function, we composed a text message using a "\" and pressed the pencil button while pressing the navigation pad to highlight it. This meant we could copy the character and then, by pressing the pencil again, paste it into the URL we were entering. Once entered, the file took awhile to load. Once there it worked, however, and we could finally watch the whole movie on a mobile phone!

The quality wasn't great, and the playback hiccuped every now and then, but lowering the frame rate to 10 (in the Nokia Multimedia Converter) caused the the hiccups to vanish and the playback was remarkably watchable. We tested playback on the 3650, and, a 6600, and while less than perfect, it was still possible to enjoy a film, even if the Real Player doesn't allow you to move around the video at all (no fast-forward or rewind, or progress indication). With the right Bluetooth headset, the audio could even be sent wirelessly (albeit in mono). Not surprisingly, the phones did do very well regarding battery life, and were able to last through several viewings without noticeable trouble.

Conclusion
Should you throw away your TV and make your mobile the center of your life? Probably not. While we demonstrated that it was possible to watch a movie on your mobile phone or PDA, whether or not it is a good idea remains questionable. The phones we tried didn't support headphones, though some headsets worked fine even if that meant further lowering the quality of playback. Having spent several hours encoding video for a particularly long flight, I was distressed to remember that I wouldn't be allowed to use my phone on a plane! The battery life on the Pocket PC is very restrictive, but the Palm works well, certainly well enough to compete with the in-flight entertainment. With the capacity of MMC and SD Cards increasing at such a rate, it seems obvious that the ability to store films and television programs will become mainstream well before devices dedicated to it are available.

Once we established that films were possible, we found that episodes of television series worked better for entertainment. Films are just so unsuited to the small screens possible while on the move. Lifting content from DVD is easy enough, though it remains to be seen if the dedicated video devices can afford to provide software to make this as easy as copying CD content to modern MP3 players. Copying and converting video is a lengthy process, even with commercial software, and it seems unlikely that it's going to make the mainstream until processing powers improve enough to make it a slick and quick transfer. But all the devices we tested were more than capable of playing back a whole movie, as long as storage was available.

Movies on the go? Not yet, but we're getting there.

Resources

  • DVD Decrypter: www.dvddecrypter.com/
  • FlasK MPEG: www.flaskmpeg.net/
  • Microsoft Media Encoder: www.microsoft.com; search for "Media Encoder"
  • Nokia Multimedia Encoder: http://forum.nokia.com
  • More Stories By Bill Ray

    Bill Ray, former editor-in-chief (and continuing distinguished contributor to) Wireless Business & Technology magazine, has been developing wireless applications for over 20 ears on just about every platform available. Heavily involved in Java since its release, he developed some of the first cryptography applications for Java and was a founder of JCP Computer Services, a company later sold to Sun Microsystems. At Swisscom he was responsible for the first Java-capable DTV set-top box, and currently holds the position of head of Enabling Software at 02, a UK network operator.

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    Most Recent Comments
    Vincent 10/06/04 04:12:39 PM EDT

    Sorry the link didn't show:
    http://www.makayama.com/soon.html

    Vincent 10/06/04 04:11:22 PM EDT

    This company will be releasing a one-step solution to do this very soon. They already have DVD-to-P900 and DVD-to-Pocket PC.

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