HDMI alternative, MHL: Your phone’s best-looking secret

A technology that’s cool, useful and about to be supported by millions of handsets — but no one has ever heard about it? Welcome to Tim Wong’s world.

Wong is the president of the MHL Consortium, which is trying to establish Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) as a new standard to connect mobile phones to big-screen TVs and other display devices. Think of it as a replacement for HDMI that is especially suited for mobile, if you will.

Check out a quick demo of MHL featuring the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, or keep on reading below.

MHL’s awareness problem

Wong’s chances to compete with HDMI aren’t actually all that bad: The MHL Consortium was founded by industry heavyweights like Nokia, (s NOK) Toshiba and Sony.(s SNE) It has about 80 licensees, and the technology is embedded in more than a dozen new handsets from Samsung, HTC and LG. Walk into any AT&T (s ATT) store in the U.S. and you will see seven MHL-capable devices on display, Wong told me.

But talk to the salespeople and you will find that no one has ever heard of MHL. Handset manufacturers don’t advertise the feature, and CE makers don’t even bother to label the MHL port on their TV sets. “This is my fundamental problem,” Wong told me this week. It’s also the reason why he is practically in nonstop campaign mode, traveling to Germany, China and throughout the U.S. to get the word out. “The awareness just isn’t there today,” Wong admitted.

Gaming, presentations, 1080p video

Wong is trying hard to change that, and I caught up with him in San Francisco during yet another day of press briefings. He gave me a demo of MHL, and the technology is pretty impressive: MHL-enabled handsets basically repurpose their micro USB port to connect to big-screen TVs through special MHL cables. A few select TV sets already support MHL natively through a port that doubles as an HDMI input.

Once connected, MHL offers not only mirroring but also up to 1080p video playback and the capability to control your handset through your TV’s remote control. Essentially, your phone becomes something of a mobile set-top box. Don’t have an MHL-compatible TV yet? No worries: MHL-to-HDMI adapters that connect to any HD TV are readily available for around $15. Wong told me that MHL cables could eventually be as cheap as your plain old USB cable. Oh, and MHL is powered, so your phone gets charged while connected to the TV.

So why would you need a mobile set-top box? First of all, showing off your videos and photos everywhere you go is nice, and plugging a Netflix-capable device into your hotel TV sounds like a great idea as well. Wong also ran his presentation off his phone when we met, and he showed me that the technology is great for bringing games like Angry Birds to the big screen (check out the video above for a quick MHL demo recorded by our own Kevin Tofel).

Great for emerging markets

But the really interesting use cases may be beyond simple screen mirroring. CE manufacturers and cable companies like Comcast (s CMCSA) have long tried to get people to use Skype on their TV set, but using the big screen for videoconferencing usually requires the purchase or rental of a separate webcam. Virtually all modern smartphones, on the other hand, already have a front-facing camera. Connect them to your TV via MHL and you’ve got yourself a video conferencing setup on the cheap.

Wong also told me that BMW is looking to use MHL in its cars, where the port could be used for entertainment as well as emergency services. Phone makers are looking to extend the experience to the big screen beyond mirroring, so you would have multiple or extended desktops, just like when you connect your laptop to a second monitor. And MHL is an interesting proposition for emerging markets, where cell phones increasingly replace computers and people don’t have much money to spend on additional home entertainment devices.

Wireless isn’t really all that wireless

Of course, MHL also has its downsides. For one, phones are intimate devices. You use them to carry around your own media and playlists and get alerts for personal messages on them. Sharing all of that on the big screen can be a daunting proposition. Second, your phone is somewhat out of reach when connected to the TV, even if you have a really long cord.

Apple’s (s AAPL) Airplay, DLNA and various wireless display technologies don’t have that stigma, but Wong dismissed them as battery drainers, especially when watching HD video. “Fundamentally, wireless isn’t wireless,” he said. At some point, you always have to plug it in, if only to recharge. So why not just plug them into the TV?

Of course, battery issues haven’t stopped Apple from gaining huge mind share with Airplay. Heck, even iPad HD mirroring is getting more attention than MHL, despite being less advanced and much more expensive. Going up against that won’t be an easy feat, even though MHL seems in a good position to reach millions of consumers in 2012. “Getting people excited about it is easy,” Wong told me. “Getting people to know about it is hard.”