Digital Capabilities; A Look Ahead

Photo Courtesy Texas Instruments

Photography is a wide-ranging field that engenders passion in its practitioners, and like all great forms of expression creates opinions formed through experience and reflection. In its early days one of the great debates was: Is Photography Art? This was the subject of many essays and heated discussions among players and spectators. Today, issues such as film vs. digital, format choices, the validity of computer generated images, photography as exploitation or revealer, and even the merits of ink jet vs. silver prints cause similar debate. We are opening this department up to readers, manufacturers, and retailers--in short, everyone who lives and breathes photography and who has an opinion about anything affecting imaging today.

Here's how to get involved: write us an e-mail at or send us a letter with a proposed topic and a synopsis of your idea. Once approved, we'll ask you to send us about 500-1000 words on the subject chosen. The idea here is not to push any product or wave any flag, but to create discussion about photo and imaging topics of the day. We reserve the right to edit whatever you send in, although we will never edit intention or opinion but only for length and, hopefully, for clarity. We reserve the right to publish your work on our website as well, so you can join the archives and be a resource for opinion for years to come.

So, get thinking and writing and share your Point of View.
--George Schaub

Digital cameras have undergone tremendous change in the past few years. But what you've seen so far is nothing compared to what's coming down the pike in the next several years. And, we're not just talking about a megapixel explosion. Think about what motor drives and through the lens metering did for 35mm photography, and then multiply that by a factor of 10. That's the scale of change you'll be seeing on the new digital cameras, and they will revolutionize the world of digital photography as we know it today.

Darkroom, Photoshop, And Intelligent Chipsets
The age-old disagreement among pros and serious amateurs has always been whether a great photo was made in the camera by a brilliant photographer or in the darkroom by a master technician. The coming of Photoshop didn't change the debate, it simply changed the terminology a bit. But starting in 2004 and continuing into the future, the debate itself will be changing. Programmable chipsets, such as those offered by Texas Instruments, will allow camera manufacturers to bundle important technical and creative features directly into the cameras themselves, rather than forcing users to download, manipulate, and correct their images on their computers. We're talking about auto correction, redeye reduction, and other capabilities previously available only in postproduction software. Some are calling this concept Photoshop in a box, because the correction process is moving from the computer into the camera.

But it's more than just a change of venue for image correction. It's really a concept that focuses on fixing problems even before they occur. Most of the new built-in features will simply improve image quality. Cameras will correct for less-than-perfect lenses, bad imagers, or low lighting. The goal is to package intelligent programmable firmware into the camera equipment in such a way that the photographer doesn't have to be a software whiz or professional to get a great picture, thus ending the debate once and for all.

Improved Performance
Digital point-and-shoot cameras will also become easier to use due to improvements in overall performance. Right now, point-and-shoot cameras force the user to wait between 1.2-2.7 seconds between shots. That's much longer than the 0.2 second delay found on current high-end digital SLRs. The long delays between shots can be very annoying to the user and can mean the difference between getting the shot or missing it completely. How many babies have missed their chance at stardom because of that delay? By 2005, you won't have a concern because point-and-shoot cameras will be offering the same rapid-fire shooting intervals of today's SLRs.

For those of you who haven't spent the few thousand dollars for today's SLR image stabilized lenses, you're in for a pleasant surprise--you won't need to. You'll be seeing chip-based image stabilization technology on affordable point-and-shoot cameras in the near future. That will be welcome news for parents who want to zoom in on their kids at soccer games or capture the look in their baby's eyes as they blow out the candles on their birthday cake. Needless to say, this will prove to be a quantum leap in digital amateur photography quality, and will forever change our concept of people and objects in motion.

Blurring The Lines, Or Sharpening The Focus?
We all know that digital cameras can record videos and digital video cameras can take still photos. But so far, neither has succeeded in taking over the other's territory. That's because the quality of still videos and video stills has been, well, somewhat less than stellar. Not wanting to sacrifice good videos for great stills and vice versa, many families bite the bullet and buy both cameras. That's great for the manufacturers, but it makes the family vacation a little bulkier.

As if the choices weren't confusing enough, you can now add picture phones to the mix. They do videos and stills, and transmit the image instantly over your wireless service. No one knows where picture phones will fit in the scheme of things. Nor do we know how much the consumer will ultimately demand when it comes to quality and usability vs. cost. But we do know that from the initial sales volume of picture phones, consumers love the concept of wireless photography.

Are you getting the picture? That's right, the markets are converging.

Most digital cameras shipping today offer photographers some kind of video capability. To accomplish that, digital cameras use a technique known as "motion JPEG," which pastes together uncompressed JPEGs to assemble a video clip. But as we said earlier, so far the results haven't been all that impressive. Starting this year, video capability in digital still cameras will gain quality and momentum thanks to new Charge Coupled Device sensors (CCDs) that offer movie mode capability. The new CCDs will stream data at high quality rates.

There are three things that have to happen on that high quality video stream. They are frame rate, compression standard, and resolution. To have great, usable video at an affordable price is a balancing act that keeps getting better. The goal is to capture and replay video at the magical rate of 30 frames per second (fps)--magical because that's the rate at which the human eye is unable to detect jitter in a video.
Next, the video needs to be compressed so that your storage device does not fill up in seconds. Look for MPEG-4 as this up-and-coming compression standard works great for cameras. Video that would fill up a 1GB flash card in seconds will be extended to nearly an hour without loss of quality.

The last of our three things for great video is resolution. If you have ever seen a small picture on your screen and wondered, "Hey, why don't they use the whole screen," you are likely looking at QVGA resolution. The Q is for Quarter, yes, as in 25 percent which is not so nice. Full VGA will fill your screen and look great. So put these together and you will want 30 fps, MPEG-4, VGA-capable cameras--and they are coming soon. While only a few cameras offer VGA resolution today, it will be available on most cameras in 2005.

Kyocera introduced one of the first digital cameras with this advanced video capability in 2003. It will become more common in 2004, and by 2005, nearly all cameras will offer MPEG-4 at 30 fps.

In the future, there will be several steps on the way to full, High-Definition (HD) resolution. Next will be D1, then 720p, and finally HD at 1080i. Unfortunately, these require more processing power, which is too expensive for today's market. But we all know how processing costs go down with each passing year. So your video capabilities will only get better and better, as we move out later in this decade.

As digital still cameras perfect their video capabilities, the digital camera market segment will accelerate its encroachment into the digital video camera market segment. Even though 10 million digital video cameras were sold in 2003, the market has remained flat for several years in a row. At the same time, the digital still camera market continued to grow, with a phenomenal 45 million projected units sold this year. While no one expects demand for video cameras to completely dry up, digital cameras that also function as video cameras are likely to attract more attention from consumers over the coming year.

Look Mom, No Wires
As we mentioned earlier, cellular picture phones with still photo and video capabilities are gaining momentum. In fact, they seem to be chipping away at the disposable camera market. The numbers tell the fateful tale for disposables: 250 million disposable cameras were sold in 2002, with projections for only 240 million sold in 2003. In Japan, 95 percent of cell phones sold in 2003 offered picture-taking capabilities, while only 5 percent of those sold in the US did. However, if Japan is any indicator (and it often is) we'll be seeing the same kind of demand here as well.

Nevertheless, it's a pretty safe bet that the digital still camera market won't be disrupted much by picture phones. If anything, picture phones are likely to lead to an increased familiarity and comfort level with digital photography. As more and more people use them, they will reduce the mystery that currently surrounds the sharing, printing, and storing of digital photos.

While no one expects digital still cameras to become cellular phones, manufacturers will be adding wireless capability to their cameras in 2004 and 2005. There are many types of wireless standards to choose from, and it is not clear which one will win out in the end. It could be based on a GPS mobile phone standard, Bluetooth, WiFi, or Ultra WideBand (UWB). Each of these technologies offers advantages and challenges. Some cameras on the market have WiFi, or the 802.11 wireless Local Area Network (LAN) standard. This means that digital cameras will have their own Internet Protocol (IP) address and the ability to transmit data at high-speed rates of 11 Mbps and eventually 54 Mbps.

That's great news to pros who want to upload photos to websites or send them to their clients immediately while on location. All a photographer will have to do is find a local wireless network called a "hot spot," many of which are being deployed in airports, sporting venues, hotels, and even McDonald's and Starbucks to transmit photos in a flash. Hot spots provide wireless connectivity at distances of 75-150 ft. The technology is also going to provide a lot of convenience to consumers with 802.11-based wireless home computer networks. They will be able to upload photos to their computer without any wires.

Perfecting The Package
Like kids in a candy store, camera manufacturers will have their pick of advanced featured chipsets to build into their cameras. How each manufacturer packages and tweaks those combinations will determine which buyers they can attract. Obviously, some features will be more popular than others. Users who demand 10x zoom lenses will be very interested in image stabilization, while birthday party shooters will definitely be excited by in camera redeye reduction and higher quality video. Travelers and business users will most likely be willing to pay the higher prices for feature-packed cameras with built-in wireless capabilities. Nature and sports photographers will really appreciate the faster firing rates.

Hopefully these new technology developments will move the spotlight away from the great megapixel competition and focus everyone's attention on what really counts--the best picture.

Dave Pahl is the Business Unit Manager for Digital Camera Solutions Business Unit at Texas Instruments.