Sega's Telecom Dream

Recently we discovered the Dreamphone, and with the help of the wider Dreamcast community were able to piece together the mystery behind this long forgotten peripheral. The Dreamphone turned out to be a repurposed Fujitsu My Phone YT8100, a simple device that let Japanese Dreamcast users connect to the internet and still allow phone calls to be made. The Dreamphone was given away as a low end Dream Point Bank prize (4000 points) and quietly fell into obscurity. It seems that Sega did have other plans for the Dreamcast when it came to telecommunications though, and here's proof:
This screen is taken from a video recently uploaded to YouTube by user DeChief. DeChief contacted me through the Assembler forums to ask if I would be interested in seeing a video that had been digitised from an old Japanese promo VHS tape. Naturally, even with overtones of the film Ring, I was keen and upon viewing it I realised the video was one I'd never seen before. 
The second half of the upload busies itself with game previews (and includes footage of Geist Force); but it's the first half that offers up the good stuff. At the 3:45 mark, the video shows off some intended uses for the VMU which include being able to attach the device to an arcade cabinet, the VMU attached to a mobile phone, and a VMU stuck in a hi-fi mini system!

I asked DeChief for more information on the video and I was told that the cassette had been purchased from a Yahoo! auction many years ago and then subsequently forgotten about. Only recently was it rediscovered and digitised to YouTube. The VHS tape itself is without a case or jacket and the stickers on it are simple orange labels with 'Dreamcast' printed on them. Due to the content and the 1998 dates included in the game previews section, we have deduced that the promo video probably came out before the Japanese release of the Dreamcast; and the VMU section was included as a sort of 'this is what we're planning' taster. What's interesting though, is that neither the hi-fi or the mobile phone attachment are ever really mentioned again anywhere online and as far as I can tell there are no other images either. So...just what was the plan here?
We know about the aborted VMU MP3 player (scroll to the bottom of this article for more on that), but does this video depict a very early mock up of a VMU being used as a music storage device? And what of the mobile phone image? What purpose could a VMU attached to a GSM mobile phone possibly have, unless it was intended to store phone book details and such? These two images really do present us with a whole range of questions - many of which will most likely go unanswered. Well, some of them will - I asked our man in Japan Ross O'Reilly if he could translate the audio from that section of the clip and he confirmed that it simply says: "In the future you'll be able to connect it to arcade machines, mobile phones and in many other situations..."

Back in 1998 (or possibly late 1997 when this video was likely produced), mobile phones were literally just that - phones. Screens were monochrome, ringtones were polyphonic and games were practically non-existent (unless you count the old classic Snake) so quite what benefit this odd melding of VMU and GPRS-enabled phone could offer is open to debate. There's plenty of other interesting stuff in the video so it's well worth watching - plenty of images of Dricas, DreamFlyer and some nice 90's style animation and over the top graphics. Here's a particular favourite:
The story doesn't end here though. After speaking more with DeChief, I learned of another telecoms-related oddity that was planned for the Dreamcast:
This contraption is a cable that was designed to allow the Dreamcast to be connected to Japan's PHS (Personal Handy-phone System) telephone system for web browsing. Before seeing this cable I didn't know what PHS was, but a bit of research tells me that it's a now-defunct system where cordless phones could connect to base stations within range (usually a few hundred metres and mainly in built up areas) and then connect to the network. It almost sounds like a small-scale mobile network where base stations in people's homes or on the sides of buildings acted as the method for delivering an overarching infrastructure. Probably better than the coverage you get in rural England too...but I digress. Looking at the cable, I'm guessing that it would have attached to a handset which would have then been used as a sort of tethering device to the nearest PHS base station. 
PHS itself is an interesting technology and it appears to have been almost a forerunner to the full-blown mobile phone networks we have today, and once again I'm struggling to resist mentioning how shoddy 3G and 4G is where I live...but let's get back on track. That PHS was a popular service in many densely populated Asian and South American cities in the late 1980s, and all the way through to the early 2000s helps to explain why Sega thought it was worthwhile pursuing this tech as an option for people to get online with their Dreamcasts. Sadly the service began to decline in popularity, and it appears Sega thought that releasing the cable probably wasn't a financially viable option...and so it remains an unreleased and highly collectable oddity in the grand pantheon of the Dreamcast. The item in the images was actually sold in a Japanese auction for 71,000 Yen (thats around £530 / $700) and remains one of the rarest cables out there for the Dreamcast, along with the ISDN/DreamWire (pictured below) and Midi variants.
The auction doesn't actually exist online anymore as Yahoo! takes them down after 90 days, but luckily DeChief was on de ball (see what I did there?) and saved the page as a HTML file. Here's a screen grab:
The auction text (according to Google Translate) says:

"It is PHS modem cable of the Dreamcast. The case in the prototype for the development is pasted seal of SAMPLE. Connect the PHS, but was not connected to the internet was able to connect to the 64kbps access point in the communication speed at the time.

The current PHS of connector micro USB, so now you can not enjoy connected (but might play if you have a still old PHS) not available in the other as a collector's item there is a historical value I think that's what.

Itself that the prototype is around out is very rare. They never hit the world is recovering normally, but we have decided to exhibit this time remaining to miraculously at hand.

Nice to meet you!"

Not the greatest translation ever, but you get the gist. 64kbps download speeds, PHS connectivity, micro USB, rare collector's item, prototype - all the buzzwords are there. 

So, it appears that Sega did have further plans for the Dreamcast and connectivity. We know about the satellite service that was mooted, but connecting VMUs to mobile phones and using Japan's PHS system are new ones on me. And sticking a VMU in a stereo? That's just crazy...right?

Special thanks to DeChief for all this information and allowing me to use the video and images, and to Ross for his translation of the video above.


CD ageS said...

What an insightful read. Amazing stuff.

Anthony817 said...

Wow so many awesome bits of info in there.