Ring tones on mobile phones were once considered cool if they simply sounded musical. Then phones starting ringing to the tune of a pop song, giving way to “ring songs”.
Now Japanese mobile operators are taking phone sound systems to the next level with stereo-quality songs that can be fully downloaded and edited, as well as surround-sound systems that trick users into hearing a bell ringing behind them or a ball whizzing by.
As consumers lose their fascination with embedded digital cameras, high-speed Internet connections, action-packed games and other entertainment features, operators are turning back to the basics of sound as a way to differentiate themselves.
Mobile phone carriers and handset makers around the world are scrambling to combine music players with phones, but Japanese operators are also focusing on improving the quality of the sound itself.
“There’s no question that music is one of the most popular contents. It gets the largest share of revenues,” said Yoshiaki Maeda, manager at NTT DoCoMo Inc.’s multimedia services department. “We’re very particular about the quality of the sound.”
DoCoMo, Japan’s largest mobile operator, earlier this month unveiled its latest line of phones, which include what it calls compact disk quality “three-dimensional sound”.
In addition to music, the phones promise to give users a much more enriching game-playing experience by combining 3D graphics.
Its rival KDDI Corp., also in late November, started selling phones with the ability to download full songs over-the-air and listen to them at a higher quality than ever before by applying advanced sound technology.
“This is just the first step,” said Tatsuo Yagi, an assistant manager at KDDI’s content and media business division. “The sound quality is still too inadequate to fully compete with music players.”
He added that its latest technology can produce the same quality of sound as an iPod digital music player, but the phones’ amplifiers still have limitations.
“The challenge is how to get the best sound possible in a small enough file to download and play on a phone,” Yagi said, who promises even better speakers in KDDI’s next phones.
Vodafone K.K. , the smallest of Japan’s main operators, also said it considers sound to be one of the more important features, particularly since it offers phones with embedded antennas that allow users to watch television. The company is a unit of Britain’s Vodafone Group Plc.
But, researchers at DoCoMo have gone a step farther, working on a next-generation 3D sound technology, which can make mobile phones produce sounds that appear to come from different directions.
In a museum, for example, consumers can receive commentaries on their phones as if they were coming from the artifacts themselves, or a business executive could be on a three-way conference call via mobile phone and the other participants’ voices would appear to come from two different directions to avoid mix-ups.
Kirk Boodry, an industry analyst with Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, said this was a natural evolution for Japanese operators, who see 33 percent to 45 percent of all data usage from ring tones and screensavers.
Japanese commuters have long daily train rides, making the mobile operators’ opportunity to capture their attention that much more attractive.
KDDI alone sees about 10 million downloads per month of so-called “ring songs”, or ring tunes with vocal music. Its newest music download feature allows users to cut a segment of a song and designate it as a ring tone.
Yagi also points to the advent of flat rate data discount plans and high-speed mobile Internet access to be key factors in helping to drive music and sound features on mobile phones.
“Technology has enabled the operators to provide good quality music services for the first time and that’s what you’re seeing here,” said Boodry.