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Palm Video: Moving Images on Your PDA (11/2000)
by Douglas Dixon
Handheld pocket organizers and PDA's (portable digital assistants) are not just productivity tools anymore: they are evolving into portable multimedia machines, with photos, graphics, and even audio and video. While you may have tried to explain your need for a Palm handheld as a sensible business tool for a portable date book, address book, and to-do list manager, the real truth is that handhelds are fun. And since you're carrying your handheld around with you anyway, doesn't just make sense to also use it as a portable photo album or even media player?
The new generation of Pocket PC handhelds, based on the Microsoft Windows platform (www.pocketpc.com), are clearly built to support multimedia, with their colorful displays, a version of Windows Media Player for playing music files, and expansion packs capable of storing large media files. In contrast, the emphasis of the Palm (now PalmOne) platform (www.palmone.com) is on its "Simply Palm" small is beautiful kind of approach to doing organizer-type activities with one-touch ease of use.
But the Palm is still a real computer with a graphical display, which means that it can be used for image display and editing and even video playback. It's just that the display is a little smaller than you might be used to, around 160 x 160 resolution, and is grayscale on some models, with 16 shades of gray.
Now you can have your media to go! In this article, we'll take a look at several different multimedia applications for the Palm platform, to view and edit images and play audio and video movie clips. You can download these applications from Palm software sites such as www.Palmgear.com, www.Handango.com, or www.Smaller.com.
The Palm Platform
These are still early days for imaging and video in the handheld market, with lots of small companies developing interesting applications. As of February 2000, Palm had nearly 5,000 software titles and more than 43,000 registered developers, and the number of developers had grown to 82,000 by June. Think of the growth of the Palm market as like the early days of the Macintosh, with a flowering of independent developers exploring the possibilities of the platform, and breaking through preconceived limits on what the platform could and could not be used to do.
Palm, Inc. has also licensed the Palm platform design and OS to other third-party vendors to develop compatible units, including the IBM WorkPad c3 PC Companion, the TRGpro from TRG Products / HandEra (www.trgpro.com) with a compact flash expansion module designed for mobile professionals, and the new Handspring Visor (www.handspring.com -- now www.palmone.com/us/products/smartphones) with an array of Springboard plug-in expansion modules.
In a further boost for the Palm platform, Sony released a Palm-based PDA product in the Fall of 2000. The Sony CLIE is an 8 MB system that includes a 8MB memory stick removable memory ($399).
In mid-2000, Palm had three lines of organizers: the basic Palm III, including the Palm IIIxe with 8 MB memory ($249 street price) and the color Palm IIIc ($449), the "stylish" thin and light (4 oz.) Palm V ($319 with 2 MB) and Palm Vx ($399 with 8 MB), and the wireless Palm VII connected organizer for wireless Internet access ($449). While 8 megabytes of memory may not seem like a lot these days, Palm applications are written compactly and data files are typically compressed.
Using the Palm for Media
The Palm handheld unit interfaces to desktop applications though a HotSync cradle and associated software to transfer and synchronize data between the handheld and the desktop. The Palm Desktop software is available for both the PC / Windows and Apple Macintosh platforms. As a result, the Palm applications can be downloaded from any platform.
The Palm multimedia applications require PC-based desktop tools for converting media files to Palm resolution and format and to reduce their size. You then use the Palm Install Tool to schedule the files to be downloaded to your Palm the next time you use HotSync to synchronize your handheld with the Palm Desktop application. Some of the desktop converter applications also automatically coordinate synchronizing between the desktop and the Palm, so you can manage a list of media files, add and delete, from either end. These associated desktop tools for these applications are platform-specific, for Windows and often the Macintosh.
Since Palm organizers are available in both color and grayscale, and with different levels of gray, these desktop applications have options to select the desired display type for your Palm when you convert a file. When you then display the image, the Palm applications typically can adjust it as needed to the display by dithering a 16-level grayscale image to a 4-level display, but most cannot show a color image on a grayscale display.
Most of these applications also support the common features of the Palm platform. Some let you attach text notes to your image files so you can search through them on the Palm, or assign viewing functions to the Palm buttons, such as scrolling up/down or left/right, and switching to the previous / next image. Most applications also let you beam your media files to a friend's handheld through the Palm infrared interface. In fact, I tested most of these applications on both a grayscale Palm Vx and a color Palm IIIc by beaming both the applications and their files between the two units.
Photo Slide Shows - Club Photo - Album to Go
One fun application for your Palm is as a portable electronic photo album. You simply select a group of digital photos, convert them to Palm format, and download them to your handheld. You then use a Palm photo album application to view the images or even present a slide show for your friends.
Album to Go from Club Photo (www.clubphoto.com) is an easy to use photo album application that can display photos individually or in a slide show format. Club Photo provides Album to Go as a free download to encourage the use of its photo sharing web site, which offers free online photo sharing combined with online photo finishing services.
PocketPhoto from Dream House Software (www.dreamhs.com) is a very convenient photo album creator and viewer. It is a commercial application with a clean interface on the Palm and a flexible desktop application that can organize photos into albums and import a wide variety of image formats.
Large Image Viewer - Firepad - FireViewer
FireViewer from Firepad, Inc. (www.firepad.com) is a viewer for large images that lets you zoom in and scroll around images that are much larger than your Palm display. It is especially useful for examining the detail in large maps or schematic diagrams, up to around 640 x 480 resolution.
You can switch between a preview version of the image, with the entire image reduced to fit the screen size, and a full-size version, zoomed in to the full image size. At full size, you can then use the stylus to scroll around in the image. The scrolling is very smooth and immediate, with no delay or jumping.
Image Editing and Animation - TealPoint - TealPaint
While viewing photos is fun, eventually you will feel the urge to edit them, or the need to use a bitmap paint program to draw your own images. TealPaint from TealPoint Software (www.tealpoint.com) is a feature-packed paint and sketch program for the Palm. It also includes a grab screen option that will capture an image of the Palm screen after waiting for you to switch another application.
TealPaint also has a simple animation function for flipping through a series of images in a database. You can easily build an animated sequence by using the built-in tools to create new variants of an image by duplicating it, or by working from a template image. You can also set the playback speed.
TealPaint includes a Windows desktop tool, TealPaint Image Manager, for converting images to Palm format and for accessing images that have been created or edited on the Palm. TealPaint Image Manager lets you open the desktop backup file of a TealPaint database, which is updated each time you HotSync. You can then add new image files to the database to be downloaded to the Palm, or extract files from the database back to a PC file, but only in Bitmap format (BMP). A separate command-line tool, PicUtil, is available for both Windows and the Macintosh.
Palm Audio - Micro Technologies - WavePlayer
Since the audio support in the Palm platform consists of only a simple sound generator, and was not designed to play music or recorded sounds, the WavePlayer application from Micro Technologies Inc. (www.mti-mimir.com) seems like a miracle. But just as clever programmers coaxed intelligible sounds out of the early PC platform, WavePlayer does actually play audio clips on the Palm. Do not expect great quality here, or to turn your Palm into a MP3 player, but the audio is recognizable.
The WavePlayer interface is very simple, with a drop-down list of available audio clips, playback controls, and a volume control. It also can draw a static graphical display of the sound waveform.
To prepare Wave files for downloading, you must add a small header to the file. A PC batch file is included to simplify this process. The Wave files are not compressed, which means that they are easier to play on the Palm platform, but take up more space.
For more fun, WavePlayer version 3.0, from mid-1999, added the ability to replace the Palm system sounds with Wave files. The registration fee is $12.95. The unregistered version only supports three wave files and they must be smaller than 64K, or enough for a few seconds of 8-bit audio at 8 KHz. The registered version also includes a program to convert large files.
Handheld Movies - Micro Technologies - MovPlayer
The next step for media on the Palm platform, of course, is video. Although video playback was not a big part of the original vision of the Palm platform, it is possible through clever use of video compression to squeeze down file sizes and fast decoders to play back at interesting frame rates. Of course, do not expect dynamic sound tracks with your video clips.
MovPlayer, also from Micro Technologies Inc., is a very basic movie player that plays QuickTime files on the Palm. Check the MTI web site for sample movies to download. A short 8-second video clip requires around 128 KB of storage, and a 12-second cartoon is around 200 KB.
The MovPlayer application is very simple, with just a list of installed movies and buttons to play and delete. It does provide the option to loop the movie, and to beam movie files to other units.
MovPlayer comes with a very basic Windows desktop converter application, MakeMovie, to convert desktop video files into MTI Movie Player format. It can convert files from QuickTime 3.0 and Microsoft AVI format, but only for some compression formats. As an added bonus, it also creates a MPEG version of the movie.
The current version of MovPlayer is from late 1998. The registration fee is $13.95; the unregistered version displays a message across the screen. It only supports grayscale Palms, and a few times the video display was corrupted when it played. But, hey, it's your video, playing on your Palm!
"Both of these products will continue to evolve as the Palm devices evolve," says John Grawitch, co-founder of MTI. "We are currently working on a color version of MovPlayer with sound which should be released soon."
Movie Clips - ActiveSky
ActiveSky (www.activesky.com) is a new approach to providing video on handheld platforms, including the Palm, PocketPC, and Windows CE. ActiveSky provides a free player application, and is working with a wide range of partners to provide a wide variety of downloadable information and entertainment content, from AtomFilms.com short clips to FunMail.com cartoons to VodUSA movie trailers. Currently, you cannot create your own ActiveSky clips; the ActiveSky encoder is only available to corporate and content partners.
The ActiveSky Media Player is a snazzy-looking application that plays "sky" format video files on color and grayscale Palms. The main screen shows a list of available clips, with buttons for setting display options and displaying information about each file. The bottom of the screen has the play controls, with play, pause, step forward, and stop.
The video clips are typically smaller than full screen, around 120 x 90, and play at a rate of several frames per second. You can actually store 25- to 30-second movie trailers on your Palm in around 500 KB of memory. Of course, it helps if you know the movie, since the current clips are silent.
ActiveSky has also developed a Desktop Viewer application under Windows that allows the its proprietary sky video format to be previewed on a desktop PC before downloading to the Palm. Version 1.1 has basic play controls and a progress bar, plus options to zoom up 2X and to display file properties.
However, the real excitement in video for handhelds is the coming explosion in wireless services, which will enable real-time streaming media on your handheld. At PC Expo in New York this June, Palm announced a major new initiative to wireless-enable the Palm platform, including current products, and demonstrated receiving frames from a live video feed of Times Square on a wireless handheld.
ActiveSky is focusing in this direction, developing "small-device media streaming technology for PDAs and the wireless Internet." ActiveSky also announced in June that it was collaborating with Ericsson to bring these kinds of services to next-generation smart phones as well
FirePad also demonstrated its streaming media technology, dubbed "FirePlayer," at PC Expo. This technology may be released as part of FireViewer, or as a separate stand-alone player.
So hang on for a future of ubiquitous wireless streaming video. According to Ken Marshall, president of Firepad, there are three trends driving in this direction: "The Palm offerings will be wireless enabled, we will have the infrastructure to do streaming, and a lot of video is timely, like sporting events." As to what's possible on the Palm, Marshall says only that "the holy grail goal for us is 30 frame per second full color video at Palm resolution." Will this be achieved, and when? Marshall adds, "we have already done so much that was impossible at many levels."
These are still dynamic and exciting times with multimedia support on Palm platforms. You can see it in the very different approaches taken by a wide array of small developers. But you can also see it in the lack of standardization and interoperability. These applications each use their own independent media file formats. This means you cannot share files among different applications, and you can only beam a media file to a friend's handheld if they have the same application. There is no common interchange format or mechanism on the Palm platform, like copying through the clipboard on a desktop operating system.
In addition, these applications are pushing the envelope of the Palm platform, and are somewhat less stable than an organizer application like the To-Do List. In order to make the best use of the limited screen size, they tend to take over the full screen when displaying an image, and sometimes disable the other Palm buttons. This can be disconcerting when you find you have to explicitly stop and animation or exit a full-screen display mode before you can switch to another Palm application. One application even disables the power button so you cannot quickly turn off your handheld.
But setting these growing pains aside, it is in fact possible to play audio and video clips, even on the simple Palm platform originally designed for organizer functions. MovPlayer and WavPlayer from MTI are very basic applications that do allow you to play some of your video and audio on the Palm platform, today. Meanwhile, ActiveSky is working with its content partners to provide a wide range of downloadable video content for its Media Player application. And more is coming, with demonstrations of streaming media technology coming soon to a Palm platform near you.
All these programs are available as free or trial downloads, so go ahead and try them out. But if you like them, please remember to pay the registration fee in order to allow these developers to keep improving these products and developing new ones.
TRG Products - TRGpro -- HandEra
Club Photo - Album to Go
Dream House Software - PocketPhoto
Firepad, Inc. - FireViewer
TealPoint Software -
Micro Technologies Inc. - WavePlayer, MovPlayer