Magazine Article


Cutting the Cables

Cutting the Cables

Wireless Technology Will Let Your Customers
Send Their Images Untethered
by Jerry O'Neill

Users will soon be able to "beam" images from their camera phones to Kodak's Picture Maker. (Photo by Dan Havlik)

As digital technology integrates with the photo industry more and more, it trails behind it a mess of wires and cables-USB cables, printer cables, Ethernet cables, and power cables. What a tangle! Each type is incompatible with the others, and there are even incompatible sub-types like the dedicated USB cables with special plugs that many digicams use for connecting to computers.

Wireless technology is quickly emerging as a useful way to get us out from under the tangle as the industry begins to see digital cameras, printers, and accessories come with a wireless option or even with wireless connectivity built in. Wouldn't it be great if a digital photographer could walk into your store, press a button on her digicam, and have her pictures automatically transmitted to your digital photo kiosk or minilab?

While that day isn't quite here yet, it's getting close. As PTN went to press, Kodak announced that its Picture Maker photo kiosks will be updated with wireless connectivity (Bluetooth or infrared technologies) to enable "camera phone beam their images to a Kodak Picture Maker and quickly edit, enhance and print their images." CVS Pharmacy will be the first national retailer to provide this, beginning early next year, Kodak said.

In the digicam field, Nikon's D2H digital SLR is one of the "wireless" leaders, with its compact WT-1A Wi-Fi transmitter accessory that attaches to the bottom of the camera like a motor drive on a film-based SLR. (For you techies, Wi-Fi is IEEE-802.11b.) With the WT-1A, a D2H photographer can transmit images wirelessly to a computer or LAN (Local Area Network) over a range of about 100 feet with the unit's one-inch-long antenna (almost 500 feet with the optional antenna), and transmission security can be ensured with data encryption.

For digi-photographers who have other models and brands of cameras, the answer may be Wi-PICS, currently under development by Dice America. Wi-PICS adds wireless transmission to any digital camera with a CompactFlash slot, without modifying the camera's firmware or having any effect on camera performance or power consumption, says Jeff Shufelt, Dice America vice president. And in addition to wireless transmission, Wi-PICS provides up to 80GB of built-in storage. At a PMA 2003 demo of a Wi-PICS prototype, photographers in the audience were impressed with the speed and convenience of taking photos with a Nikon digital SLR and transmitting them with Wi-PICS for immediate printing on a Durst digital printer. The commercial version of Wi-PICS is scheduled to ship in the 2nd quarter of 2004.

The attachment on the bottom of Nikon's D2H makes it Wi-Fi enabled.

Printing and Presenting
Without Plugging In

"Wireless" goes well beyond connecting digital cameras to computer networks. The proliferation of laptop computers and PDAs means there are lots of people who want to print something but aren't connected to a printer. Their needs can be met by printers with wireless connectivity, and in printers, that can mean either "radio" systems like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, or infrared systems like Fast IrDA. The major manufacturers like Canon, Epson, and HP already sell wireless printers. For example, Canon's two-pound, battery-operated Portable BJC-55 Color Bubble Jet Printer has a Fast IrDA port for convenient wireless printing from IrDA-equipped Windows computers and hand-held organizers. And the Epson Stylus C82WN Inkjet Printer comes bundled with Epson's Wireless 802.11b Ethernet Print Server, making a printer that serves any computer on a LAN, including wireless laptops.

HP's DeskJet 5850 Wireless Network Inkjet Printer provides similar capabilities except that the networking module is built into the printer itself. HP also sells three Jetdirect print servers that allow securely connecting a LAN to printers and scanners via 802.11b. George Mulhern, senior vice president of HP's Imaging and Printing Group, said, "People who work on the go need to be able to print easily and without boundaries." For laptop and notebook PC users, HP also has a free-of-charge Mobile Printing Driver.

For anyone who gives PowerPoint presentations, an even more useful gadget is Epson's PowerLite 735c projector, a computer projector with wireless connectivity to their laptop PC. The PowerLite 735c offers 2,000 ANSI lumens, Wi-Fi connectivity, and weighs only 4.4 pounds. It can even handle high-speed, animated slide transitions over a wireless connection.

Or, for a consumer product with definite sales appeal, there's the Wallflower 8x10 digital photo frame with Wi-Fi connectivity, which makes it simple and easy for a digicam user to load, store and display high-quality images. The Wallflower's display is a 12.1 inch (diagonal) LCD screen, about four times larger than other digital picture frames, and it has a built-in hard drive to store thousands of photos. It automatically optimizes image size, and creates a "letterbox" when needed. Wallflower digital picture frames are handcrafted and come in a wide variety of finishes, and are typically priced at $599, depending on frame style and finish.

And Now, Smile for the Phone-cam!
For the photo industry, what may turn out to be the most important wireless product of all-or might turn out to be only a passing fad-is the cellphone-camera, also called a cam-phone or phone-cam or fonecam. These phone-cams are already flying off dealers' shelves in Japan and Korea, and worldwide shipments of phone-cams are soaring. The market research firm In-Stat/MDR says that during the entire year 2002, about 18.2 million phone-cams were shipped, but in the first quarter alone of 2003, shipments were already 7.8 million. And, according to recent statistics, worldwide sales of phone-cams overtook sales of regular "camera-only" digicams during the first half of 2003.

However, phone-cams ain't perfect. In-Stat/MDR warns that current models have at least four drawbacks: low-resolution pictures, the need for more on-board memory to store photos, the need for longer battery life, and most of all the need for easier picture sharing, especially between different systems ("interoperability").

The resolution limitation is already being addressed by Sharp, which is supplying 2 megapixel phone-cam sensors to manufacturers.

And one solution to the problem of sharing between systems has just been announced by Kodak, called Kodak Mobile Imaging Services. K-Mobile will make it easy for phone-cam users to store and organize all their pictures and phone-captured video in one location, so they can "share all their digital and mobile pictures with friends and family right from their camera phone," Kodak said. And K-Mobile gives users "anytime, anywhere access to all of their digital photos and phone-captured video." They can also get prints, via Kodak's online Ofoto finishing service.

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