Mobile phone options continue to advance
The art project group Media City, for instance, held a “game” last year between media artists, engineers and cultural theorists. They were divided into teams and set loose in Myeongdong, downtown Seoul, to photograph each other with their camera phones.
From May, Art Center Nabi, a gallery in downtown Seoul focusing on media art, has hosted “Mobile Asia,” an ambitious project made up of seminars, festivals and various exhibits centered on mobile phones.
“It’s an area of art which explores the interactivity of media art to installation and performance using mobile machines,” said Choi Du-eun, a curator at Art Center Nabi, which focuses on multimedia art. “Many artists are looking into the social and cultural changes caused by mobile phones.”
Advances in technology accompanied by an addictive nature of mobile-phone use lends itself to artistic interpretation. Take DMB, which stands for digital media broadcasting, a popular addition to satellite cellular phones.
Song Seung-woo, a 26-year old Web developer and self-confessed DMB addict, takes out his mobile phone as soon as he gets on the bus to or from work. He uses it to watch live broadcasts of Star League Quarter Final, a live pro-game show. On his way to the office in the morning or when lounging around at home, he uses his cell phone to hook up to a radio station and listen to his favorite music programs.
“DMB is like cable TV,” Mr. Song said. “If you pay a certain monthly user’s fee, it doesn’t matter how long you log on to it. I have friends who even go to bed with the program on.”
Mr. Song pays from 100,000 won ($104) to 120,000 won a month in cell-phone fees. About 70,000 to 80,000 won of that is a user fee for mobile content. “It’s less than what it should really cost,” he said. “I take advantage of free game downloads and subscribe to programs that offer flat rates.”
He said that until 2001, when data services began to be offered, he rarely used his text messaging service. A customer of SK Telecom, he said it was difficult even to use his phone’s Internet search engine. Once he finished his military service in late 2003, however, he found that things had changed.
He purchased a fancy, high-tech mobile phone with a color digital camera. Now up to 70 percent of what he calls his “cultural lifestyle” comes through his mobile phone: On it, he watches television, listens to music, takes photographs, shoots movies and plays computer games. Even his offline life is linked. If he attends a big event, it’s because he got free tickets to it from online promotional sites.
“I was on a date with my girlfriend, and we decided to head to an ice rink, because it was so hot,” he said. “We logged onto Nate Mobile’s search engine, and found ice rinks in Seoul right away.”
Users of mobile phones say the Internet connection tends to work better over a phone than on a laptop with a wireless connection.
“Even in subways, you can access the Internet just by connecting your mobile phone to your laptop through a USB,” he said.
Korea is one of the leading countries in terms of mobile content. Over 38 million Koreans currently use cell phones, one reason the Global Mobile Contents Award ceremony was held in Seoul last month. But while the development of cell-phone technology has changed consumer patterns, it has exerted a subtle pull on cultural patterns also ― not surprisingly, considering how closely the two are linked.
Today mobile phones can do more than just deliver a weather forecast; some users download electronic books on their way to work. One game company recently held an event just for mobile users, in which it gave away iPods, worth about 250,000 won, to lucky participants.
Other users exchange photographs, music and videos over their phones.
“These days, I often check into Mobile Cyworld [a version of the popular personal homepage site],” said Jeong Ji-seon, a marketing consultant. “I also log on to sites that offer free information on bio-rhythms and my period calendar. If I’m too lazy to turn on my computer, I just log on to the Internet with my mobile service. I think it’s true what they say about mobile phones, they are extensions of our body and a world in our hands.”
The telecommunications market in Korea has quickly become a “test market” for the mobile industry. The market expansion has changed the urban landscape.
“Mobile content is now a cultural industry,” says Jeong Jae-young, a researcher at the LG Economic Research Institute. “It’s a business that can succeed only if you approach it from a cultural point of view rather than from a technological one.”
Kim Chang-won, a Web columnist, says telecommunications companies and mobile content providers sell “lifestyles.” Kim Seong-do, a professor of media culture at Korea University, agrees; the essence of the telecommunications industry, he says, is to analyze consumer trends, something most market watchers agree with.
“That’s because the mobile phone is the machine that’s closer to the human body than any other machine man has invented,” Mr. Kim said.
The evolution of mobile phones began in 2000, when IT companies began to produce customized ringtones and screen savers.
“Now the trend is focused on games, music and videos,” said Ahn Seung-yun, a manager of marketing strategy at SK Telecom.
A public relations representative at KTF said, “Most people think mobile content is mainly used by teenagers. That’s not true. The major users are people in their mid-20s to late 30s.”
That’s left the future of the content market up in the air.
Kim Chang-won, the web columnist, said mobile phones would become something like a “personal media center” ― an archive that collects and broadcasts photographs, videos, data and multimedia information in the best shape presentable.
Others are less positive about the change, saying culture is being shrunk to fit a palm-sized screen.
“The mobile industry is blocking various channels for cultural activities,” said Lee Dong-yeon, a representative of Cultural Solidarity, a civic group.
Yu Hyeon-oh, president of SK Communications and the man behind “Cyworld”, however, says there is no cause for concern.
Cyworld has begun offering mobile services designed for younger users. Subscribers have text messages sent to their mobile phones whenever a visitor leaves a new message on their Cyworld blog; Messages can also be uploaded over mobile phone.
“After all, media are only a strategy to consume content,” he said. “It’s a matter of changing the vessel. On the contrary, art has found an additional medium, something that will help culture and art prosper. What we worry about more is the digital gap between social classes.”
Whether mobile phones will help artists prosper is not yet certain; what is certain is that artists have taken note of the potential of mobile-phone art.
The entertainment industry is increasingly looking into the service as a potential market. In the summer of 2003, Ko So-young, a popular Korean actress, released a fashion pamphlet via a mobile service. Three years have passed, and mobile services now offer scads of image books featuring Korean entertainers.
“The ‘sexy’ concept has risen ever since the singer Chae Yeon released her photo book last year,” said Sim Mi-jeong, manager of a local provider of mobile photo books. “Fashion items such as fishnet stockings and fetish items are available for all ages. There is everything from a series of ‘parade girls’ to ‘cheer leaders.’ Mobile fashion photo books are even considered passe, unless you have the name value of Kim Hye-su.”
by Lee Na-ree