Hold the phone

Robert Tercek and PacketVideo think media convergence is headed for your cell phone.

Published December 20, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

If Robert Tercek has it right, ground zero for media convergence won't be the morphing of your PC and television. The ultimate convergence appliance will be the battered cell phone buried in your purse or briefcase -- or at least a future generation of it. Tercek, 36, is so convinced of the centrality of wireless mobile devices in our content future that he is leaving a cushy position as senior vice president of digital media for Sony Pictures Entertainment to become president of Packet Video Networks, the content division for PacketVideo.

PacketVideo was formed last year by James Carol and James Brailean with investments from Siemens and Intel. The plan is to market technologies that allow content providers to stream video and other rich media to cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other wireless mobile devices. The San Diego startup, which holds six video-compression patents, recently collaborated with Sony to deliver movie trailers to cell phones at 14.4 kbps wireless network speeds.

Tercek's move to PacketVideo is in keeping with a career that has evolved with the technology. He has toiled in a succession of emerging digital platforms in the '90s. He began the decade in cable as director of on-air promotions for MTV, then rode the CD-ROM wave as a founder of a company called 7th Level. ("Monty Python's Complete Waste of Time" was a hit title.) By the mid-'90s, Tercek had migrated to the Web, creating the webisodic "Candidate 96" for TCI and later guiding the development of online games as vice president of online programming at Columbia Tri-Star Interactive.

Elevated to senior vice president for Digital Media last year, the peripatetic and perpetually jetlagged Tercek has logged tens of thousands of miles keeping up with ITV developments in Europe and Asia. Tercek assumed the daunting task of setting up Sony's interactive TV production unit and formulating the studio's broadband strategy. He introduced ITV versions of "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" for WebTV this September.

Tall, angular and cerebral, Tercek has a reputation as a provocateur at industry forums. In a now infamous sting before an industry crowd last September, he told Digital Entertainment Network CEO David Neuman that his company's business model was the equivalent of "burning hundred dollar bills on the corner of Fairfax and Sunset."

With the move to PacketVideo, Tercek enters the undefined world of wireless content delivery. "Mobility," he says, employing his favorite epithet, will be "huge."

Why are you leaving your studio job to get into the wireless video business?

Choice and convenience have been a part of all the programming I've worked on. In my career I went from cable to satellite to the Internet, and more recently broadband and interactive television. Network television gave you three choices -- CBS, NBC and ABC. For a price, cable gave you more choice. For more complicated pricing, satellite gave you even more choice. With the Internet, you don't just get unlimited choice but convenience. Wireless will give you not just the choices of the Internet -- and eventually cable and satellite -- but the ability to decide when, where and how to consume all this content. To me, this is what this progression of platforms has been leading up to.

Your cell phone will become a player for all sorts of streaming media. A cell phone should be an MP3 player, a radio, a PC. It'll be a super-flexible device that can do everything. The telephony sphere is growing geometrically. The population of cell phones to PCs is about even now, but the growth curve for cell phones is much faster.

I don't want to sound hopelessly optimistic. I look at this as taking a couple years to roll out, not a couple months.

What are the obstacles to rolling all this out?

Wireless networks have to be upgraded. That gets solved over time. The upgrades are underway in Europe and Japan already, and that's going to put pressure on the U.S. to upgrade their networks as well. The U.S. is the big beneficiary here. Because our cellular infrastructure is not as advanced as in some other countries, we'll get the stuff that has been tested and proven in other markets.

Another obstacle is convincing content providers that there is a future in wireless multimedia. The challenge is getting those providers to sign up with us before there are huge numbers of subscribers for those services.

What are the attributes of the cell phone as a content medium?

The key attribute of mobile wireless is that you can take it with you. It's that old Marshall McLuhan saw -- the medium is the message. How we communicate affects what we communicate. When video becomes mobile, it's going to be a lot more active, highly under the control of users and purposeful. It's going to be the opposite of the sitting-in-the-living-room experience. If you're going to program for people with the mobile mindset, you've got to think interactive.

What kind of applications do you see in the next couple years? Will people be watching movies and TV shows on their cell phones and PDAs?

That may not be the first thing we do. The story of the Web has been utility and convenience. There's nothing more convenient than a mobile phone. What are the kinds of video that would help when you are on the go? Imagine a device that is smart enough to know when you are in a new city, so it gives you a video city tour to orient you to the place.

Another example: I'm at the San Jose airport where my flight is delayed. What am I missing on television tonight? I click "What's on TV tonight" on my wireless PDA and start getting promos for the evening lineup of TV shows. Let's say there's an episode of "Dawson's Creek" I really want to record. I click the TiVo button at the bottom of the screen. It sends a message back through the network to my TiVo box at home and instructs it to record that episode. That's a huge application.

Let's say you're driving around town with some friends. One says, "Let's see a movie. What's on?" You click on "movies" and a full color movie trailer pops up for a film like "The Cider House Rules." You click on "Show me a theater." Because it's wireless, we kind of know where you are by triangulating between towers. We can give you the local theaters and even a map that shows you where the theaters are located -- and a button that allows you to purchase a ticket.

It's bundles of tightly integrated services like that that could be incredibly useful to people. That's the way life should be.

What is the "secret sauce" in PacketVideo's core technology?

The whole trick to PacketVideo's technology is that it's scalable mpeg 4. It happens to be optimized for delivery over wireless networks, but you could deliver it over terrestrial networks as well. What "scalable mpeg 4" means is you're encoding once. That's very different from the way video is encoded today, where you have to code separately for 14.4, 28.8 and on up to super broadband speeds. When consumers go to a video site today they have to click on their connection speed. It's kind of crazy to expect people to know what their connection speed is. PacketVideo removes the need to do that.

Why should the cell phone be an all-purpose device? Are people really going to be able to use all that functionality on the run?

Data storage is an issue for PDAs today. Even with miniaturization, storage takes up space. People worry about losing their PDAs and the data they contain. Well, the right thing to do is leave all that data on a server. You don't need to carry the data, just access to the data.

Blue Tooth is a wireless protocol for devices to talk to each other in a localized area without plugs. Imagine I'm coming to your office to do a Power Point presentation. I don't bring my computer. Instead I bring a Blue Tooth-enabled cell phone. Let's say I need to make a change in the presentation. My Blue Tooth-enabled phone talks to the Blue Tooth-enabled keyboard in your office and brings up my presentation on your Blue Tooth-enabled monitor. I can use that keyboard to make changes, which are keyed to my phone and delivered to the server where the data is stored. That means you have all the functionality of a computer without having to carry all that crap around. What you're going to have is a world where you don't need to have a personal computer anymore.

You've worked in Hollywood for years. Has the entertainment industry really come to terms with the Internet?

The Internet disrupts a lot of old businesses. It doesn't do away with them, but it changes them. MP3 has changed the way the recording industry works. Amazon has changed the way books are bought and sold. A lot of people in the TV business think they're immune to that trend. Not only is it crazy to think you are immune, but to survive you've got to embrace the inevitability that the Internet will overwhelm the TV business.

What the Web does is call into question the need for programming for mass audiences. It's going to put that notion, which has been the bedrock assumption of TV for the last 50 years, under question.

There's a big reaction among consumers against packaged, slick and promoted content targeted at an audience. People have an instinctive reaction against that stuff now. They are looking for something raw, unadorned, original and not as slickly produced.

What the Web is really great at is self-expression and connecting like-minded people. So the issue for media companies is that a multitude of individuals are springing up who don't necessarily need to consume those old products because they're busy making and exchanging their own content.

You talk a lot about turning the cell phone into a "video walkie-talkie." But that sounds a lot like the picture phone. People have been talking about picture phones for over 35 years but the idea has never caught on with the public.

There are all kinds of reasons why a picture phone doesn't make sense. Like video conferencing -- you have to go over to a part of your house that is set up for it. There's nothing convenient about that. What we're talking about here is a mobile device with a video option.

According to Bloomberg News, there may be a billion cell phones on the planet by 2003. What would be the implications if everyone had a "video walkie-talkie"?

If everyone gets a video walkie-talkie, then everyone will be a potential electronic news gatherer. Episodes like the Rodney King incident will be ubiquitous. The eyes of the world will be everywhere all the time. We didn't have a good picture of what was happening in East Timor recently because there wasn't a good way for people to get the images out.

It sounds like there may be geopolitical implications if this kind of technology actually catches on.

There's an old phrase -- out of sight, out of mind. There's no question that improving communications has a geopolitical impact. This is a deeply empowering technology for people. Instead of getting the processed, programmed point of view, you'll be able to upload your own point of view.

Getting back to Hollywood, what other ways will digital networked technology change the entertainment industry?

TV content is dumb -- not as content, but as data. It's not self-aware, interactive, indexed, searchable or dynamic. Once a program is on tape it becomes fixed media, like shrink-wrapped games for computers. The problem with products like that in a networked economy is that they become commoditized. Video libraries are destined for commodization. What every program provider needs to work on is how to add layers of service, content and information on top of that fixed linear programming.

Let's imagine a world where sports programming is encoded live and indexed for all key plays. One index may be how loud the audience cheers. Let's say that PacketVideo has a deal with a video provider to deliver sports highlights to mobile wireless customers. Imagine a busy traveling businessman who loves sports and signs up for this program. He doesn't have a lot of free time and he's stuck at the airport. He wants sports video but only wants to see the big plays. He says "Sports. Football highlights" into his cell phone -- I'm convinced we'll have speech to text recognition on these things. The command goes back through the server and scans all the indexed sports footage for the past weekend and brings up the big plays. That service is one way to take linear video content, repackage it and make it valuable enough for someone to pay a subscription for it.

What is the ultimate wireless vision?

Imagine a world where processors are embedded in everything, wireless bandwidth is abundant and flat and flexible screens are available. That will be a world where video images are as ubiquitous as paper is today. Everywhere you see a poster, sign or ad, imagine a video screen in its place. It will be a world aglow in constant activity and fabulous images, communicating relevant information. Take a billboard on a bus. As a bus moves through different parts of town, the ads will change depending on the time of day, the part of town and traffic conditions. During rush hour that ad space will be more valuable to advertisers than at other times.

Aren't people already suffering from information and sensory overload?

We haven't seen anything yet. The fun thing about traveling overseas is coming home and realizing how saturated we are with media in the U.S. You begin to think you've reached your limit and can't absorb another video image. Well, you can always absorb another video image. We're going to be awash in a rich media stew.

By John Geirland

John Geirland is co-author of "Digital Babylon: How the Geeks, the Suits and the Ponytails Fought to Bring Hollywood to the Internet," to be published Sept. 1 by Arcade.

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