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Turning The Corner With Digicams



COVER STORY

TURNING THE CORNER WITH DIGICAMS

By Don Sutherland

July 2001


So how come it's taken so long to make these nifty new things universal? The leaps and bounds with which the digicam market has grown have trashed Moore's Law as far too conservative - we seem to hit generations on the twelve-month mark more than the eighteenth - will it really take another year to bring everything into place? Is the digital camera market really poised, or merely posed, to launch us off into the future?
Well, a camera is merely the front-end in a long process that finally delivers finished photographs. And in '96, the back-end fell a tad short of the front-end. The difference today is that the back-end is catching up, enabling digicam potentials to be implemented with the convenience, speed, and economy they really need to capture a mass market. In meeting these potentials, they've already introduced options and issues that never greeted the camera business before. The digital camera will become an even bigger snowball as the months advance.


Perhaps it was once inconceivable that the major inventions of Eastman and Bell should merge into one gizmo, but that's what Ricoh declared for-real around PMA time in 1996. Their RDC-1 was capable of direct uploads to the Internet, one of the most significant potentials of the digital camera to this day.
Ricoh's been back since the last photokina, declaring their RDC-i700 for-real now, too. So intimate is the i-700's association with telephonic communications that Ricoh seems almost to deny it's a camera at all.
They're positioning it as an Internet appliance, more like a sophisticated palmtop computer which simply has a lot of picture-taking potentials. It's an odd way to characterize photography stuff, but it's altogether appropriate to the times. Picture-taking palmtops are now available in several forms, the i-700 bearing the most sophisticated photography system of the bunch. Ricoh was certainly a prophet before its time, but also was not alone. Plenty of others shared the belief that people like transmitting photographic files via telecommunications, along with a lot of related data like text, charts, audio, movies, and whatever else folks transmit as multimedia.
Nikon was quick on the scene with photographic PDAs kicking-off their Coolpix brand name. The earliest Coolpix models, the100 and 300, were not what you'd take on an exotic photo-shoot. The 100 was a camera on a stick, the stick having precisely the characteristics required for plugging it into a PCMCIA slot in a notebook computer. The 300 was itself more of a PDA with a CCD, probably benefiting the insurance adjuster better than, say, Richard Avedon.
If these were such great ideas, how come they didn't take-off in '96? There's been a stumbling-block, or rather a bottleneck called bandwidth. The cameras might have been Internet-friendly, but large photo files take time to phone-in when the transmission rate is around 19 kb/s. And that's about all you get out of a cell phone system, which arrives alongside the intriguing prospect of uploads via wireless modem.
Jeff Lengyal at Ricoh expresses optimism over developments like the Ricochet system, which runs a lot faster. I caught-up with the Ricochet folks at PC Expo, where they were claiming a transmission speed of 128 kb/sec. Their service is available in most of the large business centers around the country, but national saturation awaits additional funding.
The benefits of wireless uploads direct from the camera accrue, of course, with the amount of distance between the photographer and home base. Wireless uploads make the largest contributions in places that have no wires. This could include a party fishing boat in the middle of the ocean ("Honey, what do you think of this whopper!") or a campsite in the woods ("Dear Audubon Society, what kind of feathered friend is this?") or a scenic overlook on the road ("Dear grandma, the valley really is this green!").
For obvious reasons, however, high-speed providers will drive their stakes into the most fertile grounds first, the business centers. The full value of wireless uploads direct from the camera will be awhile a-coming, after the fast-payback markets are saturated. But they do seem to be a-coming.
Terms like "distance learning" and "telemedicine" entered the popular vocabulary years ago, describing a great many services rendered students and patients. This has been going on in the sparsely-populated sections of the country, where a class of students can't all reach the schoolhouse, or where the one local doctor can't make all the housecalls. These are among the benevolent uses of transmitted images, accomplished so far with TV systems. The evolving digital infrastructure will shortly make comparable services as accessible and as commonplace as the home computer, with much better quality than any TV system ever produced.
The fact that many digicams can append audio files to their pix brings more of the "world of tomorrow" down to today. What if you could modem an AV instruction manual, with spoken words and clear pictures, to clients and customers? Twenty years ago, Panasonic's John McConnel described a future in which the engineer at the John Deere factory helps a farmer in the field in India make repairs. Can we now really do that? Not yet by the best of all possible means, but we're getting there.

Digital cameras have played a major role in the rapid development of the Internet and future in-camera technologies will only heighten this already strong relationship.

MEANWHILE, DOWN AT THE CORNER ...

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