Keitai Cartoon Antics Get Personal

Back to Contents of Issue: February 2003

Hello Kitty, move over. The new hip character is, well...look in the mirror.

by Gail Nakada

IT JUMPS, IT CRIES, it's cute, it's -- good god, it's you in an animated teddy bear suit on my keitai. Keitai are fun. It's undeniable. In Japan a mobile phone is as much an entertainment system as it is a portable medium to route voice traffic. Now GignoSystem Japan (formerly PhotoNet), which provides all sorts of animated and other Web-based cellphone services, has joined with electronics manufacturer Casio to come up with the Mail Chara Koubo (Mail Character Club) for camera-equipped keitai. For a flat monthly fee of ´315, subscribers to KDDI's EZweb services can slap their own face or the face of a friend, a family member, their boss or whoever on a robot, teddy bear, anthropomorphic apple (wearing a dress -- so it's extra special), tuxedo or any one of 50 patterns to make an animated character.

GignoSystems created the characters and animation system in-house. A few clicks chooses the character, a few clicks more sets the figure in motion then shoots it off via email in the form of a greeting card. Mail Charas jump up and down, punch, spin, cry and present flowers in animated movement. Animation form is more "flip-book" than CG, but it is cute, and let's face it, "cute" is a powerful word in the world of mobile content. Mail Chara can also be used to create screen savers or photo logs in keitai address books.

Mail Chara Koubo isn't the only animated system out there, of course -- though it is the first to customize personal photos with characters. FunMail, for example, tied up with NTT DoCoMo awhile back for MMS messages via i-mode to send animations with Hello Kitty, Garfield, the South Park gang and other characters. FunMail messages can be made on either another i-mode keitai or desktop computer. Disney, Sanrio and Square's Final Fantasy all have animation delivery systems as well. Finally, J-Phone has a system that lets you stick your mug on little characters, but they are static, not animated.

Mail Charas jump up and down, punch, spin and cry.

For Casio and GignoSystem, the important difference is that their service takes advantage of one of the fastest growing trends in Japan's mobile industry -- camera-equipped keitai. Brisk sales of Casio's camera keitai are helping -- along with their digital camera business -- to pull the company back to profitability, and cellphone manufacturers across the board are counting on camera keitai to help reverse downward trends in mobile phone sales.

Nationwide, camera keitai have already passed the 10 million mark. KDDI EZweb had around 11.35 million subscribers near the end of 2002; of that number, 1.33 million were using camera-equipped models. The company told a press conference in November that camera phone subscribers spend around ´2,000 to ´3,000 more a month than the average cellphone user. Though KDDI trails camera keitai leader J-Phone -- the company behind Sha Mail -- it is working hard to build goodwill and trust with consumers. A report on customer satisfaction released in November by J.D. Power and Associates Asia placed KDDI's au phone service in the No. 1 spot.

The Mail Chara Koubo service kicked off the first week of December by promoting four of Casio's camera keitai models. It is, though, just the beginning. "We're planning on expanding the character offerings far beyond the 50 we've started with," says Saya Nishikawa of GignoSystem's Investor Relations Department. Right now, the outgoing system for Mail Chara Koubo is limited to KDDI's EZweb. I-mode users can receive Mail Chara Koubo, but sadly, the system is not compatible with J-Phone. Says Nishikawa: "Though we aren't ready to say anything definite yet, we are considering applying this kind of character service to other carriers as well."

You can run but you can't hide. Mail Chara Koubo may be comin' for you. Look, I'm a robot and I'm dancin' on your phone. @

Gail Nakada is a Tokyo-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to J@pan Inc. She declined to be turned into an anthropomorphic apple for this story.

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