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Sony Pictures goes mobile

Earlier this week, Sony Pictures announced a new feature film network for domestic U.S. mobile phones that will be available initially on AT&T Mobile TV. Sony is calling the channel PIX and it will launch in May.This comes on the heels of AT&T's announcement that it has partnered with Qualcomm's MediaFLO USA to deliver mobile entertainment and information services. PIX will be available along with other mobile channels such as CBS, NBC, ESPN, and Nickelodeon.

PIX is the first network of its kind, and I asked Andy Beach, author of the newly published book, Real World Video Compression, what his take is on it.

KJ: Whether or not viewers will sit and watch an entire feature film on their cell phones is debatable, but what do you think the user experience will be like?

AB: Yeah, I'm not so sure I want to watch a full length movie on my cell phone either, though I'm glad somebody is working on this type of technology.  That said, I watch full length movies from my iPod all the time—but only when I'm on airplanes, or some other "disconnected" space.  

My immediate thought when I heard about this was it seemed like a product more suited to a sporting event where I want to stay apprised of the results and see whats going on, but don't have to get as engrossed as I would as when watching a film.  

You've written a whole chapter on compressing video for mobile devices in your recent book. Where do you see the challenges in compressing for mobile devices in general? And more specifically, compressing feature films for cell phones?

AB: The biggest challenge by far is overcoming the small screen.  That's a pretty big jump from a cinema release to a cell phone. Shots that are meant to work visually on the big screen just aren't going to have the same impact in their smaller form. Cropping the image where possible to focus in on the action certainly helps you put the pixels and bits where they are most needed.  Using a modern codec is probably the next best option out there. Many mobile devices take advantage of the VC-1 (aka Windows Media 9) and MPEG-4 as codecs they can play-this is a great place to start when exploring your format options.

KJ: Where do you think the software companies need to do the most work in providing the right tools for compressing video for mobile devices?

AB: Two things really help the mobile compressionist-automation tools that make it easy to quickly apply the same settings to many movies and quality control tools that verify all your new files are at the right quality and are guaranteed to play back on the target device. Many options exist for the first one; not as many for the second.

Adobe's Device Central is an interesting piece of software that really helps those interested in content creation for the mobile market (not just video but still images and graphics as well). It is a collection of information about each type of mobile phone currently shipping, including information about supported formats and screen resolutions. It even lets you emulate playback on the devices from your computer. Tools like this help content creators support a wider range of mobile platforms while consistently delivering high quality material.

KJ: What is your favorite encoder for compressing video for mobile devices?

AB: As the head of product management for a company that creates compression software, I'm probably the wrong person to ask (*cough, cough* Inlet Technologies & Fathom *cough, cough*).  But in all seriousness, there are a variety of products out there today that encode for mobile devices.  There are super inexpensive solutions for the Mac, such as Visual Hub, that make it easy to encode for the iPod and are a great way to get started without breaking the bank.  

I spent a lot of time reviewing a variety of encoders in Real World Video Compression and each tends to have their pros and cons. It's less about which is best and more about which is best for you. It's a great time to be encoding video for mobile devices because there is so much support across both the Mac and PC platforms.