Wireless Virtual Pets

for Mobile Phones

An Industry Study

by Gary Polson
Polson Enterprises
November 2001
This page is a mildly technical article covering the development of wireless virtual pets for mobile phones. We, Polson Enterprises, provide virtual pet market and technical services and provide this page as background information from which to launch more in-depth discussions with our clients and potential clients.


Bandai's Tamapichi was the first mobile phone / cell phone based virtual pet way back in June of 1997. Since then many have produced cell/mobile phone virtual pets and other games.

The emerging mobile phone game and virtual pet market is being driven by the increasing availability on tens of thousands of potential subscribers, especially in Japan and Europe.

Many animated characters were offered on Japanese phones. Hitachi currently sells a color WAP phone (model C309H) that has a "hamster mode" (a hamster endlessly dances on the screen). Mobile virtual pets appear to have developed from a combination of those characters and the success of keychain virtual pets (Tamagotchi).

The beginnings

Japanese vendors rapidly produced games that could be played on phones for a small monthly fee. Among the early ones was a virtual fishing game called Turibaka Kibun from Dwango (Dialup Wide Area Network Gaming Operation). Partially due to the fascination of the Japanese people with fishing, it was a great success.

Doom was an incredibly popular PC game. Dwango stationed high speed DWANGO servers (feed mobile phones) in Europe beginning about 1999. Dwango's main web site is in Japanese, but you can click on the Dwango USA button for English. Their recent efforts include a phone Samurai game and a collection of board games.

Japanese and European phones have many more features and capabilities that those used in the U.S. Europeans can purchase pop from pop machines, add time to parking meters, check their bank balance, book a flight, order theater tickets, view restaurant guides and weather reports, listen to music and find an open apartment to rent using their phone. Phones using these technologies are slowly coming to the U.S. They are sometimes referred to as 3-G (3rd generation) phones.

Several foreign phones have nice graphic capabilities and internet access. A few even have joy sticks and infrared ports that can be used to interface with other units.

The phone technologies

A wide range of formats are capable of supporting virtual pets. Currently most virtual pets use i-mode or WAP and SMS.
i-mode phones (nobody really knows what the "i" stands for)

these phones transmit data in wireless packets, similar to the method used by the internet. It is a proprietary protocol. i-mode was introduced by DoCoMo in early 1999 in Japan. The desire for open standards has limited its use outside Japan. That appears to be changing now. DoCoMo has a chart illustrating the explosive growth rate of this technology. Thousands of tamagotchi run on i-mode phones in Japan.

WAP phones (Wireless Application Protocol)

WAP is an open standard widely used in Europe. It allows mobile phones and PDAs to access special services on the Internet. WAP phones cannot view normal web sites. They only view sites written in WML (WAP Markup Language) which are in very limited number, but easily adapted to housing virtual pets. In Japan, i-mode is "always on" (sort of like a DSL line), but in Europe WAP is circuit switched (dialup).

Sprint PCS Wireless

Sprint's PCS service is a WAP phone (see above)

PHS (Personal Handy Phone system)

PHS has been around Japan since 1995. It was thought to be dying off, but has recently staged a comeback. It sends digital data at higher rates than early cell phones and routs data to low-power base stations placed 300-500 meters apart in cities. PHS phones were very economical and big hit with Japanese teens. They even operate in underground Japanese shopping malls. DDI Pocket Inc. plans to launch a higher speed version of PHS in the spring of 2002.

SMS (Short Message Service)

This technology allows sending short text messages to mobile phones. It can also be used to support virtual pets.

MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service)

Ericsson, Logica, CMG and Comverse are major providers of this messaging format.

BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless)

Qualcomm's wireless internet solution

Mobile phone game standards

Motorola, Siemens, Ericsson and others are working toward a mobile phone game standards that may allow intercontinental game play, or at least improve "interoperability" among the many technology formats. The group is called the Mobile Games Interoperability Forum (MGIF)

Mobile phone virtual pet programming

i-mode uses compact HTML, or cHTML, which is supposed to allow users to view HTML sites, but they look much better in cHTML. cHTML is well described on Anywhereyougo's i-mode Development page.

WAP phones view web sites written in WML (WAP Markup Language). Wireless Developer Network hosts a WML tutorial.

Per a Nov 2001 report on Singapore Cnet, "i-mode finally gets a shot of Java" some new i-mode phones will run java based programs (java was used to write many online virtual pets. The article reports NTT Docomo released the final draft of i-mode Java specifications on Christmas day 2000. The Java language for i-mode terminals is based on CLDC (Connected Limited Device Configuration) of J2ME (Java2 platform, Micro Edition). DoCoMo Java also supports i-melody (sound file) and i-anime (animation GIF) playback function.
DoCoMo is expected to release the new Java i-mode terminal--the 503i series--sometime in Nov. 2001.

There are concerns java may slow down the network, but others point out a new possibility. Sony has found a way to display information from the handset onto a TV via its games consoles. One Asian business wire was quoted by The Register theregister.co.uk as saying:

"For example, users might want to raise virtual pets or other animated characters using their phones, and then later use a TV to show their friends what they've done, or else to let the characters fight each other."

Billing mobile virtual pet users

i-mode users are billed by the amount of information or services used, while WAP users are billed by connect time.

Timeline of mobile virtual pet history

Virtual Pet PATENTS

Extensive coverage of virtual pet patents is provided on our Virtual Pet Patents page. The collection provides a extensive information about virtual pet design, including many of the elements used in Wireless pets.

Similarities between wireless pets and keychain pets

The mobile virtual pet explosion is mirroring many elements of the keychain pet industry. I have not noticed any mentioning the "clean" feature. It was common on the keychain pets to clean up your pet's poop.

Very extensive coverage of keychain pets trends is provided in our 1997 article, Recent Developments and Trends in Keychain Pets.

Wireless virtual pet articles

Mobile virtual pets have received little attention in printed media. Most of the coverage has occurred in online sources.

i-mode and WAP emulators

Emulators allow you to trick your PC into thinking it is an i-mode or WAP phone. They can be used to viewing of existing WAP and i-mode vp. Several vp sites are subscription based.

English i-mode emulators are very rare as most users are Japanese. Wapprofit has one with a 30 day free test and a license for about $20.

WAP-shareware has a long list of WAP emulators.

Market entry costs

In addition to programming, overhead and marketing costs:
The major difference between web based pets and wireless web based pets is wireless pets must be coded specifically for each wireless access technology (i-mode, WAP, etc) and are not accessible by normal PC browsers.

Future directions in mobile pets

We anticipate some similarities with the keychain pet explosion.

Some chronic diseases (diabetes, asthma), health groups (dentists), museums and causes (animal rights, save the whales, pet care) have come forward with virtual pet designs. The virtual fishtank at the Museum of Science in Boston is an example. We expect similar efforts to move to mobile virtual pets.

As keychain pet prices drastically dropped, they began to be used for movie tie-ins in Japan and later in the U.S. (not always with the blessings of the copyright owners). Examples included Mulder & Skully, MIB (Men in Black), Star Wars, Toy Story, and Godzilla.

Fast food tie-ins are possible, KFC branded Giga Pets. An International airline produced a pet for giveaway on long trips to keep people busy.

The strong popularity of the 8-in-1 type keychain pets indicates their might be a market for multiple-in-1 mobile pets.

The use of codes and cheats finally came on at the end of keychain vp movement. It was very popular with the youth. They are very easily incorporated into mobile vp games and we expect to see more of them.

Most keychain vp little or no web site support (fun places to talk and play about a specific virtual pet as well as to find the instructions that were inevitably lost). Since mobile vp are already online, we would expect this to be incorporated to a greater degree.

Virtual pet breeding has been carried to the n'th degree by the Norn PC based pets (Creatures Labs in the U.K). Some version of breeding vp games will undoubtedly come across to mobile pets.

Its probably only a matter of time till we begin to see evil (drink, smoke, drugs, sex) mobil phone pets. Several surfaced in the keychain and online pet movements (Tamahonam Gangster Pet, JunkyPuff), virtual slave girl.

The ease of tie-ins to ISP's and phone services would indicate the possibility of major ISP's having their own pets as a value added service and phone companies using them as a tool for differentiation.

Hopefully at least a few of mobile virtual pets will be used as an educational tool. The same platform can be used for a wide variety of applications beyond games. It's going to be an interesting future!

Closing comments - Virtual fish

It was interesting that a mobile fishing game come to the forefront early on. Virtual mechanical aquariums have been available for a several years (NEC company used 3d projectors to make them in 1995), Aquaroid had robotic fish, Dali has virtual fish that actually swim between PCs on the internet, Fin-Fin was Fujitsu's effort at artificial intelligence in a "dolphin-bird" creature, El-Fish was a very hot PC pet from Russia in 1996 by Anima-Tek and Maxis, Aquazone by 9003 is a great PC virtual aquarium and who can forget the success of the handheld bass fishing games. Wal-mart even has Pro Guide Bass Fishin' unit with simulated GPS! The U.S. does not seem incredibly hot on the fish market, but much of the rest of the world loves fish games. One of the new mobile phone fish games (Alien Fish Exchange) even lets you cook your fish!

Polson Enterprises Research Services

We have been working with virtual pets since mid 1996 and assist in the development of virtual pets in all formats. We provide technical, market and patent information support, identify potential partners, review pet designs and maintain a vast library of virtual pet materials in all media forms (wireless, mechanical pets, keychain pets, java pets, online pets, CD rom pets, robots, vp downloads, game cartridges, board games, playing cards, etc).

Mobile phone pets offer a low cost of entry opportunity as well as foster ongoing customer relationships. The mobile vp market is new and still partially ruled by novelty. It will soon be a very competitive market ruled by successful revenue models based on innovation, design, market segmentation, promotion, business relationships and ease of access by the various phone technologies. We can help you be a long term winner in this industry!

Polson Enterprises web site: www.virtualpet.com provides further information on our services.

Polson Enterprises email : polsong@virtualpet.com

We would also appreciate a note if you are aware of any wireless pets not listed above.

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