About Face at ASF: Kiosks Now, Dry Process Later
The first time I heard of a company called Applied Science Fiction (ASF) was at an evening event at PMA-2000 in Las Vegas. Someone whispered (literally) in my ear that this firm, with a very un-photo name, was working on a system to develop negative film without the need for wet chemicals. Dry processing, they called it.
The reactions from the trade at the show were as expected: not a workable idea; absurd; whaddya' mean they destroy the negatives; who needs it?; don't they know that digital is coming?
The management of ASF remained resolute. The first time I saw a working model of the dry processor it was in a box two sizes larger than the one we used to hold neighborhood gang meetings in when I was a kid.
It took only two years and a lot of bucks and the folks at ASF introduced the Digital PIC system in a box 3'x3' square and about 12-inches wide. It did everything that they said it would do: input 35mm film and output the images to a CD-ROM without the use of wet chemicals.
From Day One, the objective of management was to offer the D-Pic as an OEM component to be incorporated by some manufacturer into its own minilab or kiosk product. ASF definitely did not want to be in the business of manufacturing and selling branded equipment one at a time to an end user.
The sales road has been a filled with potholes. The feeling among minilab manufacturing firms was that they saw little advantage to replacing their wet film processors with one that ate up the customer's negatives. If they had to use chemicals for the paper processor anyway, it was no big deal to stay with a wet film machine.
The great hope was the Phogenix DFX system with the HP inkjet output. Management at both Phogenix and ASF talked about the natural combination even before the public announcement of the Phogenix program with the expectation that they could offer a completely chemical-free minilab. They may still be talking, but it hasn't happened. In fact, Phogenix developed its own wet film processor. May be a message there.The DigiPIX Countertop terminal will handle any incoming digital media, including CD-ROM. The customer previews the images and selects those to be printed on any output print device, possibly a minilab.
The one potential bright spot was the announcement last year that Gretag had signed a deal with ASF that might have resulted in a Gretag-ASF minilab. A mock-up of a proposed Gretag unit was even shown in the ASF booth at photokina. But that shooting star faded before the ink dried on the contract as Gretag's financial problems forced it to go through a reorganization and finally, in November, to file for bankruptcy. If the Swiss bankruptcy court approves a proposal to have San Marco Imaging take over the production and marketing of Gretag minilabs, there is some possibility a product may evolve. Someday.
With the minilab pickins slim, it would appear that a kiosk affiliation would make more sense. But even that fork in the road has not led to any open doorso far. In an effort to show the world, and maybe prove to itself, that the D-Pic was a viable product, ASF developed its own free standing kiosk that incorporated the D-Pic. Test systems were placed at retail locations: Precision Camera, Austin, TX; Camera Land, NYC; CVS Drug, seven locations in New England; Keeble & Suchart, Palo Alto, NM.
Consumer surveys taken at these sites, according to ASF, indicated a very high rate of consumer acceptance of the system. They claim little resistance to the fact that consumers were getting their images back on a CD-ROM and would not see their negatives again, long a concern to industry traditionalists.
A typical installation at these test locations was to have the D-Pic dry film system incorporated into a kiosk that would also accept the variety of digital camera flash memory cards. An all-in-one image solution and a good way to show off the D-Pic, which, after all is the ASF flag product. In the real world, however, it took time for any one customer to do an order, whether for the developing of film or the use of the kiosk to print from a digital media card, and others in line wouldn't wait. Not a good situation for the store or the customer.
This resulted in a new concept for ASF: With the interest in the digital media function of the kiosk being so positive, they decided on a setup with one D-Pic film station and two separate kiosks, all three interconnected but physically separated, the latter serving as digital input and edit stations with dye sub print capability. Each digital kiosk had a scanner and was packed with the variety of ASF image enhancement software modules: ICE, ROC, SHO and GEM.
Such a 3-piece setup has been in operation at the CVS store in Acton, MA, since mid-December and is the ideal arrangement envisioned by Dan Sullivan, ASF president. Once the D-Pic is ready, a customer buying the three-pack, fully equipped, would pay about $75,000.With the minilab pickins slim, it would appear that a kiosk affiliation would make more sense. But even that fork in the road has not led to any open doorso far.
It's important to note that with all the technical development that has being ongoing for D-Pic, according to Dan, the product would still not be ready for final release until the end of 2003. He indicated that they've come a long way but that "key components were being re-designed for reliability and robustness."