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PalmOS Tech Articles > #5, January 2002

Movies on the Move
A Guide to Handheld Multimedia

Close your eyes and imagine having your entire video collection in the Palm of your hand. Nice? Well, now open them up again because while you were off in fantasyland, someone nicked your wallet.

Okay, so we're not quite there yet despite what some television commercials or venture capitalists might have you believe. Still, even in its infancy, handheld video and multimedia shows much promise and can be very exciting even in its initial stages. In this article, we'll cover some of the issues, uses, and technology behind multimedia on your Palm Handheld, and how developments in this field can benefit you today.

Multimedia, as defined in the dictionary, is the "combined use of media, such as full motion video, music, sound effects, CD-ROMs, and the Internet, for education or entertainment." A few years ago, a "multimedia" presentation often consisted of grand 3-screen corporate slideshows sychronized to an inspirational musical soundtrack. Today, such a presentation might include video footage, real-time software demonstrations and even interaction with the audience. Still, the term can be used to describe the combination of any 2 or more media. Even a puppet show with a harmonica accompanyment may accurately be called "multimedia", though the term is not commonly used in this context.

For our purposes, we'll consider multimedia playback of moving images with sound, something almost all PalmOS handhelds can accomplish to varying degrees.

Video playback quality is almost entirely dependent on having good software. Clever and innovative software can play back high quality video and sound, while poorly designed software can be unusable for any number of reasons.

At first, creating a video playback program might seem straightforward. One need only take a series of still images stored in memory and display them in sequence to produce a moving image. And indeed, this is exactly what some photo album programs do to offer a so-called "movie playback" feature.

Such a simplistic approach, however, has a fatal flaw. Video footage stored uncompressed in this manner is unusably large. Even at 160 x 160 low resolution and a minimum 10 frames per second, 16-bit color video eats up memory at a staggering half-megabyte per second. At this rate, even an otherwise empty eight-megabyte handheld could only hold a scarce 15 seconds of footage, completely unacceptable for almost any purpose.

To achieve a usable video solution, the images must be significantly compressed. Natural video is incredibly difficult to compress, and doing so on a handheld is doubly so. Standard video compression algorithms like MPEG are simply too CPU-intensive to use on PalmOS handhelds, requiring processors roughly ten times faster than currently available to play back at full speed.

Any video algorithm needs to create a delicate balance between 1) file size, 2) playback speed, and 3) image quality. More clever software can give you a better overall combination, but even still, the results will reflect trade-off made between these three factors; you can't simply improve one factor without affecting the other two. That would be like trying to find a car that had the lowest price, highest fuel efficiency, and most powerful engine all at the same time. For instance, it's possible to get perfect image quality with a simplistic uncompressed approach, but this comes at a horrible cost in file size. And while MPEG might give good image quality and small file sizes, running at only one frame per second on a Palm would really be more of a slideshow than moving video.

The best software tends to simplify moving images to make them easier to compress. Simple methods include color reduction, lowering the resolution, or masking out regions of the screen that aren't moving. More complex programs like TealMovie also use smarter algorithms to subtly simplify the images in ways the eye often won't notice. Using such techniques, TealMovie achieves roughly a 25-fold reduction in file size, maintaining excellent image quality and storing more than six minutes of footage in the memory of an 8-Meg Palm; much more if stored an external storage card.

Better yet, TealMovie also offers support for sound on all but the original PalmPilot and Palm III models, a feature virtually unheard-of on the PalmOS platform.

What's that? Natural sounds on your handheld? While showing graphics on your handheld is nothing new, and moving those graphics is the next natural step, you might be surprised to know that your Palm, Visor, or CLIE can play back more than just alarms, beeps, and computer-sounding tones.

When Motorola designed the Dragonball microprocessor used in current Palm handhelds, they also added in hardware to play back digital sounds and music. On the original Dragonball processor used in the Pilot, PalmPilot and Palm III, there isn't sufficient audio buffering to do anything else when sound is playing. On the Dragonball EZ and VZ processors used in later models such as the IIIx, IIIc, V, m100, etc, however, audio can be played in the background, freeing the processor to perform other tasks as well.

Alas, the quality of the sound produced does depend on some forethought on the part of the hardware designer. Clean sound of sufficient volume requires some external filtering and amplification circuitry, something Palm didn't consider necessary when they designed their original Pilot as a simple digital replacement for a Franklin planner.

Fortunately, sound quality has continually improved in newer and newer models since then. Today's m500 and m505 can reproduce fairly clear speech and music about as well as that old crystal-diode radio you made as a kid out of an empty oatmeal container. Or was that just me?

Anyway, PalmOS licensees have taken audio a step further. HandEra was the first out of the starting gate with their TRGpro handheld and subsequent HandEra 330, both of which feature additional amplifiers and filtering for clear sound output. Sony raised the bar by adding a headphone jack and optional MP3 player (more about that later) in ther newest CLIE devices. Other manufacturers are likely follow suit, leading to improved audio as a standard feature in future devices.

Multimedia capabilities can be extended further with the addition of third party hardware from companies such as InnoGear and PocketPro. Their respective products, the MiniJam and Porteson Pro, add MP3 playback capabilities to some handheld models. Similar to the MP3 support found in some Sony CLIE models, most are far from a general purpose sound solution, usually adding the equivalent of a stand-alone MP3 player that can be remote controlled to a limited extent by custom Palm software. Other products, such as BeatPlus from Hagiwarasys-com (www.hscus.com), offer more direct software control, allowing enhanced sound effects for games and applications. For any of these products to be useful, however, they need widespread support from software developers, something difficult to achieve without dominance in the market. So until this happens, improving the sound quality of the standard hardware might be the best solution for all.

So now that you have a little primer on what multimedia options are available, how can you get your feet wet? Of course, we suggest you download TealMovie (www.tealpoint.com/softmovi.htm) and give it a spin with one of the hundred or so free movies downloadable from our movie library. You'll be surprised at what your little handheld can do, and so will the folks that start appearing over your shoulder once you start playing some of these short flicks.

If you're feeling ambitious, you can try making your own TealMovies using the included Windows movie converter utility (a basic Macintosh utility should be ready in about a month). The utility reads in standard Windows AVI files and automatically scales, converts, and compresses them into TealMovie format. Use it to, say, convert that funny clip of your niece that you captured with your web cam or that funny commercial you got over email. The next time someone tries to impress you with photos of their family on their PDA, imagine their surprise when you counter with a full screen movie of your own.

And if you put together something that you'd like to share with the rest of the class (and it does NOT contain someone else's footage or music), we'd love to see it! Please send it to us by visiting our submissions page at www.tealpoint.com/submit.htm.

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