See over there, at the Realeyes3D booth? Whos that geek shooting down attacking biplanes with his phone? Going “yakka-yakka-yakka-yakka!” and whooping with delight?
Yes. It was me.
What did I come away with after the 3GSM World Conference in Cannes, France? One powerful, almost overwhelming impression: The days when the world could talk about a phone being a voice tool are over. Its now an imaging device.
Up until now, people have been getting away with talking about the camera phone as if it were a joke, a toy, an amusement for kids who dont know about photography, or a way of pacifying distant grannies. But 2005 marks the arrival of sophisticated imaging technologies.
Some of them are simply unbelievable. Easy to understand, but what sort of mind came up with the idea of using the camera as a cursor control?
On a normal smart phone, you can watch PC users itching for the mouse. They want to hit the Start button and click things, but there isnt one.
Well, there is now: the camera. It works! You have software that latches onto an object in the background, and as you move the camera, the image moves across the field of vision. If it goes up, its cursor-up; if down, then its cursor-down. Like learning to use a mouse for the first time, its clumsy at first—but with some development, and an improvement in camera technology, its going to be great.
OK, you dont want a mouse? How about a games controller? My biplanes were real—but I could only see them through the phone window. Again, the software latches onto the background, and it draws the enemy aircraft in relation to prominent objects.
Move the camera, and the plane stays “in the same place”—in front of the aluminium pole, or coming past the guy with the red hair, or in the middle of the window.
Too trivial for you? How about using your camera phone to send faxes?
I laughed when they told me about it, but darn it, it works! A megapixel camera—like any of the new Series 60 Nokias or the Sendo X2—has the resolution to photograph a sheet of small print on U.S. letter paper. Well, on A4 paper here in Europe, of course, but its not significantly different.
Software looks at the fuzzy, out-of-focus image and sharpens it; an “ink-detector” routine decides whether this will be a black or white pixel on the fax machine, and all you have to do is enter the fax number where its going. All of the software is on the central server; all you need is a good enough wireless data connection to send the image. In good coverage, its no slower than a standard fax.
Next years phones will be two-, three- and even four-megapixel; and in Asia, there will be six-megapixel camera phones. Why are they phones and not cameras? Beats me. But an awful lot of things will become easy that are pretty tough to do today.
Oddly, business applications may well become harder. Doing clever stuff with the camera as a cursor is significantly easier on the processor if you have quarter-VGA than if you have six megapixels. Cut down the work, they say; use only the center of the image.
And theyre working on other tricks. Like when youre fighting the planes, can the software work out which objects in the background are close, so the planes will be behind them? Not yet, but …
Who are these people?
That was the scary thing. Actually, I lost count of the number of people who, quite independently, drew me to the back of the booth and showed me a variant of the plane-shooting game.
And the same thing applies to several other camera-phone apps. Remember the 2-D bar-code scanner I reported from France last summer? I saw half a dozen similar products, some more and some less advanced. Some are in use already in Japan, one software developer assured me. (I still meet people who cant see the point, and who think bar codes are just warehouse management devices).
Amazingly, the cheap phone/bar-code scanner could just about wipe out all point-of-sale uses of RFID tags, and open up a whole new world where everybody—not just warehouse managers—has one. And they say, “Whats the point?”
Behind that, and the new music-player phones (where would you put the “fast-forward/rewind/pause/play” buttons on a phone, eh?), and all of the infrastructure stuff, the other thing that this years 3GSM left me with was a sense that the worlds operators are running out of road.
I think theyre living on “jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, never jam today,” like the Red Queen in “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” and I think the financial community is starting to ask itself: “Hey, isnt it about time we had some jam?”
And the saddest part? Well, Cannes is a harbor. The exhibition center is on the waterfront. All of the marina is jammed with incredibly expensive boats, all booked for the week by corporations who want to add a little touch of something extra to the time.
And next year, while were all looking forward to being in a real city, not a small town, it has to be admitted: Barcelona may have excellent exhibition and conference facilities—but they are the other side of town from the boats, in Barcelonetta.
We will miss the boats.
More about download and upload problems next week …