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High Tech World: Cell Phone Cameras - 2003-08-04

Mobile phone users worldwide are using their phones to do more than just talk. Especially in Europe and Asia, text messaging the ability to send a short message from one phone to another has become widely popular. Technology reporter Peter Meyers tells VOA's Rosanne Skirble that with the arrival of a new wave of phones equipped with cameras, the next big thing in mobile phone usage is taking pictures with a phone and sending it to other phones.

RS: "How does this work, Peter, sending a picture on a cell phone?

PM: "It is truly remarkable the way the technology has advanced to the point where they are able to create a phone the size of a deck of cards, really not much bigger than the cell phones we are accustomed to seeing that has a camera in it. Physically, the phone looks pretty much the same. The screen on the cell phone acts as both a viewfinder - as we are accustomed to seeing in a camera and a display for once the picture is taken. So, you are simply looking at your phone, training it on what you want to take a picture of, snap the button and then the picture is stored in the phone. Then there is a very simple feature on most of these phones in which you are simply sending the picture either to another user who has a properly equipped cell phone or to somebody's e-mail account. It is really fairly straight forward and as with these things probably will get even easier to use through time." RS: "Why are these mobile phones being offered at all? Are mobile phone users demanding the service?"

PM: "In a word, 'no.' The interesting kind of feature of the cellular phone industry is that most things that happen now a days in that world are literally in response to the hundreds and billions of dollars that these cell phone companies have spent to make their networks capable of sending more than just voice phone calls. And, what that means is that they have to figure out a way to make back the money to build up the capacity of these networks. So, what they have done is to look for people to use their phones in ways other than make phone calls. One thing that has become very popular has been the sending of short text messages. It has taken off like a big fad among teenagers especially in Europe and Japan, and I think that buoyed the cellular phone industry in conjunction with the cell phone manufacturers have decided that letting them take pictures with their phones is going to prove very popular or at least they hope so."

RS: "How are people taking pictures with their phones?"

PM: "As the service in the early stages has been a little expensive, most of the early adopters have been businesses. It has been everyone from insurance agents who are out on the scenes of accidents who want to take a picture and want to send it back to their office quickly to realtors who have taken pictures of houses for their potential clients. But we are (also) starting to see a few uses where consumers will go into a store (snap a picture) 'Honey, what do you think of this shirt?' and then send it back home and try to make a quick buying decision. There is also a group of people who last October on Halloween who came up with what I thought was an ingenuous use of these camera phones. They embarked - through the leadership of one person on a photo scavenger hunt where they went around on Halloween day during the day for a long list of items. And, every item they could take a picture of and send back to one person who collect the pictures and (reward) them points. They were looking for everything cats in a costume, dogs in a costume, famous people's gravestones. There was even a bounty for a picture of Elvis. And, it was a lot of fun. You can image how this sort of thing can become a toy, but a toy that unites people. The interesting thing about this contest is that the team members were not in the same geographic location. They were distributed throughout the country and it really brought a new take on something like a scavenger hunt."

RS: "What's ahead?"

PM: "There is really no end to the things that cell phone manufacturers will look to put on to the cell phone that will add to its capability. Samson recently released in South Korea a cell phone that lets users watch television, which is truly remarkable if you think about it. They also have phones that function as camcorders and let users download music that they can listen to. So they are really experimenting with everything looking to see what consumers (callers) are interested in.