Back to the Drawing Board

In this entry, I praised Ricoh’s newthink approach to camera design and I wrote about the 12-year-old Minolta Dimage 1500 which sported an on-board scripting language.  It turns out (shockingly) that I’m not the only one who thinks programming your camera would be a cool and useful idea.  Thom Hogan has thought about this a lot more than I have and he has written an essay about where he thinks camera design should go in the future.  His main point is that the camera of the future should be modular, programmable, and communicating.  Amazingly, Minolta’s Dimage 1500 from 1998 met 2/3 of those requirements.  Don’t be too harsh on Minolta for missing the third (communicating), since WiFi wasn’t all that popular back in the 20th century.

I agree with just about every part of Thom’s essay.  Modularity is good for camera companies and their customers.  For example, I love the form factor of my current DSLR, but it’s sensor could use a replacement for better low-light performance in a couple of years.  Programmability is a sticky issue because it can make a product very painful to use.  However, if it’s implemented well, the product can me much more customizable and reach a larger market than a non-programmable device.  Communication is really the key to bringing cameras into the future (or is it the present?).  Imagine your camera had a 4G connection to the internet.  Forget the ability to post pictures directly to Twitter, Facebook, etc.  Instead think about being able to automatically back up your photos online as you shoot them.  You could spend a month on vacation and only need one memory card.  And if your camera gets stolen, you haven’t lost a single picture.  What if your camera could search your Facebook friends and match photos of them to automatically tag the people in your photos?  It’s not that far-fetched.  The latest version of Picasa does an impressive job of face detection and identification.  This quote from the essay sums it up best:

My iPhone can tell me where I am, tell me where the sun is and the moon will be, put watermarks on my images, stitch panos, apply tilt-and-shift-like effect, email them or send them directly to places I want them, and much, much more. My US$7999 D3x can’t do any of those things. Doesn’t anyone else find something wrong with this picture?

Image quality has gotten pretty dern good, but the user experience of the camera is still stuck firmly in the past.  Why not focus some resources on creating the next truly revolutionary camera?  Canon and Nikon may be on top for now, but they are the two least innovative and boring companies to watch, in my opinion.  They make great cameras, but they still don’t even have sensor-based stabilization in their DSLRs.  The most popular camera on Flickr is not a Nikon or a Canon, or even a camera.  It’s a phone.  There are two reasons that the iPhone is the most popular camera on Flickr: 1) people always have it with them and 2) it’s easy and quick to post pictures directly from the iPhone to Flickr.  Combine that functionality with good image quality and you’ve got a winner.

But what do I know?  The camera I’m carrying around with me today is an Olympus OM-10, which doesn’t even have a USB port.


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