The latest score on mobiles

Live sports action pictures will be available over a mobile phone for the first time in the next few weeks, without the need to buy costly third generation handsets.

Manchester-based Video Image Coding Specialists (VICS), a spin-off from UMIST, has developed compression technology that allows video clips to be played on GSM and GPRS (or 2.5G) phones, and claims to be the world’s first company to offer the service.

VICS last week launched a portal offering ITN news and weather bulletins, film previews and clips from TV shows, in a bid to attract commercial interest in the technology. The company is also in negotiations to provide clips of football action and sporting events, and will be able to offer live feeds within weeks, according to Prof Nigel Allinson, chair of image and vision engineering at Umist.

‘It is a question of getting the network and content providers to take an interest, because the alternative is to wait for 3G, which will be expensive and will only cover city centres initially, whereas GSM and GPRS already work nationwide, and the phones are cheaper,’ he said.

The researchers have developed a compression technique known as psychophysical shaping, which involves missing out the parts of an image that humans do not see. People are more sensitive to seeing some spatial inform-ation than others, and are not very good at seeing details that change very gradually, said Allinson.

‘The sky appears uniformly blue, but actually it varies greatly in different areas. So if we have a picture with a lot of sky in it, there is not much point in sending all the details like these small changes in colour, because we don’t see them.’

A process called vector quantisation was developed for encoding the image. This involves dividing the information into blocks, each represented by a number, allowing the system to compress the video footage even further. ‘We can represent a region of the image by a single number, while in conventional coding a number can only be used to represent a single pixel,’ said Allinson.

Unlike existing video compression techniques, the system does not start coding information in one corner of the image, but instead works outwards from the centre, sending the most important information first, and sending the rest if there is available bandwidth.

The system is able to determine what inform-ation is the most important using a neural networking process called self-organising mapping. The researchers trained the system to recognise the most important and common features within a given image by showing it a large sequence of video clips.

The technology will work with all network types and operators, and is initially available on Nokia 7650, Sony-Ericsson P800 and most PDAs. Downloading a 30-second video clip is likely to cost around 40p, said Allinson. ‘People can connect to the portal via a WAP browser to download the software, and the phone is then enabled to play video clips.

‘Users then go to the site to bring down the clips, and all they pay for is the connection time, so to download 30 seconds of video costs about the same as downloading a single still picture.’

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