The 3G Tokyo Time Machine

Last Friday, my colleagues and I hopped in an elevator, trundled into a taxi, and embarked upon a “field trip” to Tokyo. We returned in time for lunch. Needless to say, it was no ordinary journey.

Our visit to Tokyo took place via NTT DoCoMo‘s Manhattan showroom, which is rigged up to recreate the 3G wireless environment people in Japan, and those in some European countries, can experience. It felt like not only a virtual trip halfway around the world but also a trip forward in time. The visit was a unique opportunity to do more than just imagine the much-hyped 3G technology. It was a chance to envision potential implications for marketers as 3G becomes more pervasive.

Wireless and mobile marketing are, of course, just in the very early stages here in the U.S., but carrier interoperability of SMS — slow to come to the U.S. — is likely to drive increasingly more adoption. So far, the biggest mobile marketing splashes have come from the entertainment industry, but media buyers tell me interest is picking up.

As for Japan and the showroom’s virtual Japanese space, both are light years ahead. (One of my colleagues claimed to be keeping her phone safely tucked away during the visit, fearing it might develop an inferiority complex if exposed to 3G devices.) The slick, modern showroom, furnished in steel and glass, is connected (via a whole lot of cable) to DoCoMo’s 3G network, known as FOMA in Japan. Behind a wall lurks a base station, ready to accept a call on the network. It’s the only place in Manhattan where Tokyo is a local call, but mostly we just used the phones to call one another.

Forget phones with still cameras, they’re so 2G. We’re talking full-motion video in the MPEG4 format. You can record 100K of video (about 24 seconds) and mail it to another person, or (even more impressive) you can use it to conduct ultrafuturistic videophone calls. Christopher Saunders, managing editor of Instant Messaging Planet, and I waited for Hiroko Morinaga, corporate communications manager for DoCoMo USA, to establish the connection. Then we went to opposite sides of the room to get a sense of the videophone experience.

In one video window on the screen, I saw Chris’ face — his lips moving more or less in time with what I was hearing. In a second window I saw myself, which allowed me to align the camera with my face. Alternately, I could point the camera at other things in the room, should I want to show Chris something. I could use either the speakerphone or an earphone to hear. The connection was remarkably clear, although there was a slight delay — primarily due to the long trip the signal had to make to Tokyo and back. While we were talking, one of us could send a video file to the other, who could watch and hear it as the call continued.

Watching video files at about 380Kbps — P2P (in this case, phone to phone) or downloaded from an i-mode site — was incredible. Those tiny screens had such high resolution, the video downloaded so quickly, and the sound was as crystal clear as the video. It wasn’t nearly as kludgy as I’d imagined. It felt like the first time I used a high-speed Internet connection. The possibilities seemed endless.

The most obvious marketing application would be movie promotions. In a 3G world, I could watch a trailer a few times, even forward it to my husband as we make our Friday night plans. Music videos make sense in this context. I could check out a new band or forward the latest sensation to a friend. Perhaps I could have received a birth announcement photo when my little niece was born, with a message sponsored by the hospital, Pampers, or another appropriate brand. With 3G, visual messaging is simple and natural, difficult though that may be to imagine in our wireless world.

This Jetsons-like functionality is still a long way off for most Americans. If you live in San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, or San Diego, you’ll likely get a head start. Although NTT DoCoMo and its U.S. partner, AT&T Wireless, originally planned to roll out 3G service in 13 cities, they’ve recently scaled back plans to include only the aforementioned four. That won’t even happen until December 2004. Meanwhile, Sprint and Verizon have 3G plans of their own and have rolled out higher-speed services in some places.

Of course, there’s always the “network effect” to consider. Why buy a videophone if there’s no content available and no one to share it with? Even tech geeks might hesitate, depending on the price point. It’ll take some time to build a critical mass, even when all the technology is in place. That’s why DoCoMo’s priced FOMA comparably, or even lower, than its 2G service.

Walking out of that showroom last week felt like stepping back into the days of vacuum tubes. Suddenly, my phone and even my color PDA seemed positively prehistoric. No multimedia messaging? No video capabilities? No high-resolution screen? Thankfully, my humble devices have everything I need for now, including SMS, AvantGo, and Vindigo, which allow me to carry on relationships with brands. Eventually, we’ll catch up. I’ll be better prepared, having made that virtual trip to Tokyo.

Update: We’ve already been receiving inquiries from people interested in visiting the DoCoMo showroom themselves. For information, you can contact Jamie Pizzorno or Karen Lurker of DoCoMo USA, either via email or by phone at 212-994-7222.

Meet Pamela at the Jupiter ClickZ Advertising Forum in New York City on July 30 and 31.

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