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Digital Update
Trends and Technology at the CES Show Setting the Stage for a Digital Feast at PMA

By Ronald Johnson

While plasma and flat screen TVs, home theater and very loud cars still dominate the annual CES show in Las Vegas, digital photography is making a more respectable showing every year. While new products in the digital photography market await unveiling next month at the Photo Marketing Show (also in Las Vegas, unfortunately) much of the talk was about trends in technology and product convergence that we'll see in the coming year. The evidence of so much still photography and imaging here at CES is evidence that digital has indeed become a mass market item.

The last time this reporter visited the annual CES digital cameras were just entering that mass market territory. No longer in the realm of the computer world, or used only by those who take a chance on new technology, digital cameras and associated products have developed a life of their own and have begun to make serious inroads into film photography's market. We did, by the way, get another prediction for when digital will replace film entirely, and the folks at InfoTrends now say it's 2008. I think the prediction last year was 2006.

If you follow what's been happening in photography it's evident that digital dominates the news. Last year we saw the emergence of the under-$1000 digital SLR, the dominance of 3-4 megapixel cameras, serious price drops on memory cards and printers, and new software programs for every level of enthusiast, for everything from organization to digital darkroom magic. We've also seen the growth of the picture phone market (now 5% in the US, although everyone is betting that the teen market will create a burst in the next year), wireless digicams, which beam images from camera to computer without any connections, new scanners that appeal to the amateur and pro and a feeling among just about everyone that when you talk about photography that it's a digital world after all.

Coming Improvements
Now that digital is mass market, various segments of the industry feel comfortable in dedicating even more investment in research and development, which means they might even address some of the roadblocks that makes digital a sometimes less than comfortable experience for all. Hopefully, we'll see the development of standards that clear up problems in communications and especially printing, which remains a serious issue for many people today. And, with more and more cameras offering the Raw file format, there hopefully will be some way for people to untangle what has become another new problem to solve.

One of the keys to the kingdom is in the image processor inside the digital camera. In brief, when a digital exposure is made the sensor captures electronic, raw information, which is passed onto the digital processing chip in the camera that analyzes and integrates that information and coverts it to binary form. True, much work has been done on the sensor itself, including the three-layer sensor from Foveon and the Fuji and new Sony CCD developments. But even with improved sensor technology the in-camera image processor is where the image hits the road, and that's where some of the changes in the year ahead are promised.

Software on the Chip
One of the developments might come in what is called “programmable chip sets.” In discussion with the folks at Texas Instruments, we were told that these chip sets might include features that make a preemptive strike on common image problems, ones that previously were handled in the computer after the image was downloaded. This might include a “smart” red-eye elimination feature, which would finally solve the engineering problem all in-camera point and shoot flashes create in both film and digital models.

It could also include auto sharpening and anti-vignetting to correct for less than sterling lenses on inexpensive cameras (or even the light falloff from very wide angle lenses on even digital SLRs), and auto noise reduction for those who like to shoot in low light without flash.

One company here — ArcSoft — featured what they call “camera firmware suites”. These are solutions that are embedded into the image processor itself, and they showed samples including auto-panorama building, a red eye “detective” and direct printing links for those cameras that might lack some today. They also promise the same for picture phones in the near future.

Unresponsive Shutter Release

One area that has plagued digital shooters is shutter lag and processing time stall. Shutter lag is one of the main problems with family digital photography today. If you have kids or take pictures of the grandkids you don't have to have this explained to you. In short, by the time the camera responds to your pressing the shutter release the picture (and the kid) is gone. Landscape photographers never complain, but parents have learned to anticipate a smile or a kid's movements if they want to get the shot, or even the kid in the frame.

Processing time can also be a problem, particularly with the high megapixel cameras we have today. This means that after a shot, or a series of shots in consecutive shooting mode are made, the photographer has to wait until the image processor processes and writes the information to the memory card. True, higher end cameras have already, to an extent, overcome these problems, but they certainly plague digicam (amateur) users.

The answer is once again in the chip. If the chip has a fast enough processor, and the AF and AE processing speeds when the shot is made can be increased, then these lagging problems could be fixed, or at least minimized. That's what we're promised, at least.

Another area in which we might see some on-chip developments is in image stabilization. With small cameras featuring even greater zoom ratios (the wide to tele spread) there's a danger of unsteady images. As one presenter for a major camera company said in showing a new ZLR model at a press luncheon last fall, “With optical and digital zoom both at maximum, you have a 1500mm lens. Who can hand hold a 1500mm lens?”

Digital zoom has been universally lambasted, and for good reason. This merely crops into the chip rather than actually doing anything for the “real” focal length of the image that is captured. Those seeking poor image quality need look no further than using digital zoom. But in the next year or so we might see image stabilization on the chip itself, which will certainly save many a picture, even those in low light without flash.

Covergence Technology
There's been much made about convergence technology, an odd phrase that means combining a number of devices into one. We've already seen the all-in-one printer, fax, copier, scanner, card reader etc. and certainly picture phones count in the convergence device count. Indeed, many digital cameras these days have a so-called “movie mode”, which often result in motion images that are choppy and look like old-time movies. This comes from a low framing rate and the attempt to create motion from a quick series of stills, which is what, of course, movies actually are. The change in this area is in the sensor itself, with new CCDs promising data streaming at greatly increased and increasingly realistic rates. (By the way, some folks say that CMOS will replace the CCD as the sensor of choice in “low” resolution cameras.)

The goal of chip makers now is to incorporate these higher framing rate sensors into still digital cameras and to offer new compression modes that allow longer videos to be made that use smaller amounts of memory. Some talk of an hour of high-quality MPEG4 video, at 30 frames per second, all on a 1 GB memory card. To top it off there will be higher resolution frames offered, what the industry called “full” VGA, rather than the ¼-VGA now more commonly in use.

In sum, there's no question that digicams will become more responsive to the touch, and to the eye. Kyocera has something called “R-Tune” (for rapid technology) that helps their cameras power up in less than a second, cuts shutter lag time (the time between release pressure and a picture being made) to 0.07 seconds and lets you shoot at 3.5 frames-per-second until you fill up the memory card in your camera. You can also do VGA video at 30 frames per second, which is like real live motion pictures. The current model to sport this technology is the company's SL300R, but we're sure to see more such features from other makers as well in 2004.

Inroads on the Inroads
What does this mean for the digital video market in general and camcorders in particular? Some here suggest that the same inroads made by digital cameras on film cameras will now affect the digital camcorder market as well. The thinking is that instead of camcorders offering digital still capability that digital still cameras with all the features of great video will be the way that people go. That's a true wait-and-see situation. But still cameras seem to have the advantage, what with solid state recording, which frees the user in downloading and is more versatile than mini-DV tape. In addition, still cameras will always deliver better still images, and do so with “native” megapixels rather than the interpolated (manufactured) pixels that seem to be what's happening in digital camcorders.

What about camera phones? Some have predicted that they will in turn erode digital still camera sales. Optimists in the digital camera corner predict that picture phones will only increase interest in digital photography in general, and that this will in turn mean more people involved with photography than ever before. If image quality is of any importance it's clear that camera phones are only toys, but everyone thinks they're cool anyway. And some folks may be content with that quality (which can only improve, as it can't get much worse, for prints, at least) and have fun with it and forget about getting a digicam. So it goes.

Wireless Downloads
Wireless cameras in general will certainly gain in the year ahead, although there are many confusing standards and no one predicts which one will dominate. When used by pros in controlled environments (read events and sports) they can be a great aid in getting pictures beamed up to the pressroom in a flash. But the first amateur-oriented models are slow and you can only beam one photo at a time to your computer, a much slower proposition than downloading via a card reader, docking cradle or even the camera itself. But will consumers want to be downloading images in “hot spots” or even their homes in wireless fashion? It certainly seems to be the trend.

At the show we got to play with the Concord Eye-Q Go wireless camera, a 2-megapixel unit with Bluetooth that the company claims can download to PDAs, laptops and eventually, camera phones. So you can now take a picture with a digicam and send it to a phone and then beam the image around. Or you can use the Concord and download from 30 feet away to your computer.

One manufacturer gave us an intriguing thought — what if all digital cameras merely stored images on an internal buffer (a temporary holding area) and as you shoot the images are beamed to a black box on your belt that acted as a receiver/drive? And what if that drive could be used later as a card reader to download images to your computer, wirelessly, by just setting it on your desk in home or office? Where would that leave memory cards? Would they, like much that will be left behind in this rushing technology, be just another curiosity as we speed along further down the digital road? Gone to the dustbin, next to New York's subway tokens.

Some Product Highlights
With all that in mind what follows is a very brief summation of some of the highlights here at CES. This is by no means a complete list, and includes some products from industry companies that caught this reporter's eye. We'll start off with Kodak, which had a greater presence here than in previous years. At CES, the company positioned itself as a picture service provider, especially in the picture phone business. Their new KODAK Mobile Service ( provides camera phone users anytime, anywhere access to their complete collection of digital photos and phone-captured video. Anyone with a camera or image-enabled phone that supports Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) 2.0 can store, access and share their images using the KODAK Mobile Service directly through their handsets or an Internet Web browser for a $2.99 monthly fee. People can even choose to have friends and family receive automatic notifications when new photos, videos or albums are added to their online accounts.

Kodak also showed their picture phone enabled Picture Maker kiosks. Camera phone users will be able to beam their images to a KODAK Picture Maker using Bluetooth and infrared wireless transfer technologies, after which they can quickly edit, enhance and print their pictures. We tried this last month and it worked, although picture quality in the low light circumstances under which we made the image was not very good. Hey, how about a picture phone with flash?

As one of the more curious items we saw was an SUV with a camera dock in one of the overhead compartments. You take pictures at the beach, dock the camera, which then sends the image over the mobile phone to the Kodak Mobile service, all while driving back in rush hour. That way folks who are dying to see your family adventure right away can link up and see them, all before you get the sand out of your shoes.

Camcorders from Canon
Canon usually saves their still cameras for PMA, so they chose CES to feature some affordable camcorders. For estimated selling prices of $399, $499 and $599, Canon's Mini DV ZR80, ZR85 and ZR90 models are what the company calls consumer-friendly. They also offer some amazing zoom lenses: 18x on the ZR80, 20x on the ZR85 and 22x on the ZR90 models. For those who wish to venture there, digital zoom gets the users an incredible 360x on ZR80 model, 400x digital zoom on the ZR85 unit and 440x on the ZR90. Of course, the models incorporate an image stabilization setup, but you might want to lash that 440X zoom shot to a very, very steady tripod. The ZR85 and ZR90 models come bundled with Canon's DV Messenger2 software Windows only that allows the camcorder to be used for Internet Video Chat through IEEE1394 and using Windows XP's Windows Messenger program.

Fuji announced that they are jumping into the home digital inkjet paper business. According to the company, their Fujifilm Premium Plus Photo Paper will work with all inkjet printer models. It is a glossy type surface and will be sold in 4"x 6" in 20, 60 and 100 sheet packs or 8½" x 11" in 20, 50 and 100 sheet packs.

Software Options
Software companies offering programs for the digital imaging market were everywhere at CES, and all will make a very strong presence at PMA, including Microsoft. One company that seems to be coming on strong is Jasc Software, Inc., which at the show unveiled Jasc® Paint Shop™ Power Suite – Photo Edition. The new Paint Shop Power Suite – Photo Edition is designed to provide digital photographers an integrated solution with all the tools they need to produce professional results. The suite includes Jasc® Paint Shop™ Pro® 8, Jasc® Paint Shop™ Photo Album™ 4, Jasc® Paint Shop™ Xtras Creative Edition 1 & 2, and "Paint Shop Creations – Demystifying Digital Photography," a new book that provides readers with how-to's, tips, and over 250 full-color photos and illustrations to help customers get the most out of their digital photos.

If you'd like to add sound to your stills, and send and store them without attaching a .wav file, a company called SoundPix has come up with a way to embed the sound file into a JPEG. SoundPix 2.0 goes for about $40 and only adds about 10-15k to the JPEG file.

One of our favorite image filing programs is Picasa. Though not as full-featured as software such as Extensis Portfolio or ACDSee, it's an affordable way to get a very good organization structure for all those images clogging your hard drive. The recent addition to the program is something called “Hello”, which allows you to share an image, or a bunch of images, with a single click. It works with both hi-res and low-res images, and it's free with Picasa installed. You can, of course, order prints online or even give friends a gift certificate so they can order prints on your dime.

KM's Neat Little Scanner
Konica Minolta will be making some very interesting moves in digital at PMA, but the one we can talk about is a very small, and powerful desktop scanner that they think will encourage everyone to finally break out the film shoebox to do those digital conversions. It's pretty fast for even high-res scans. Called the DiMAGE Scan Dual IV it includes something called the Auto Dust Brush, which is said to automatically detect dust on the film surface that blowers cannot remove, and corrects the image. Moreover, a Photoshop Plug-in has been added so that images can be corrected in real-time using the bundled Photoshop Elements 2.0 software. Users can also select areas for correction and adjust the processing level. This, we think, is very cool and a real step forward in helping folks untangle what can be confusing scanner controls. Thanks to improved sequences in the scanning process and the USB 2.0 interface, high-speed operation including image transfer and display is possible in only 21 seconds per image, even at the highest resolution of 3200 dpi. That's plenty fast!

Memory Card News
For those who didn't think there were enough memory card formats, take heart. Lexar Media, Inc. has introduced the Lexar Media miniSD card, an extension of the SecureDigital (SD) memory format designed to offer flash-based storage for devices with limited internal space for removable memory. The miniSD occupies approximately 60 percent less area in a host device than the standard SecureDigital card and is set up for use in phones, digital cameras, digital video, MP3 players, PDA's, games and email. Lexar's retail packaging will include a miniSD adaptor allowing miniSD cards to function in the broad base of existing SecureDigital compatible host devices. Currently, Lexar Media is shipping 32MB and 64MB capacities.

Speaking of memory cards, we were interested to learn that the SD memory card has passed the CompactFlash card to take the top position in market share among memory cards, according to the most recent sales data available from The NPD Group. The SD format captured the number one position with 30% of the U.S. flash memory market in October against 28.8% for the CompactFlash Card. In third place was Memory Stick, with a 22% market share.

While not strictly a memory card, the SanDisk Cruzer Titanium is a USB 2.0 flash drive the size of a (thick) stick of gum that comes in capacities as high as 512MB. Just plug it into your USB port and the computer will recognize it as a separate drive. It's a great way to store and carry around information. (Say goodbye to the floppy disk.) Of course we liked the Cruzer USB Micro and MP3 player combined. The player is under $50 and the 512MB Cruzer is $159.

Nikon's Coolpix
Nikon brought their new Coolpix 3700, with a 3x optical Zoom-Nikkor lens and 3.2 megapixels of resolution. Though small in size, the camera offers 256-segment Matrix exposure metering and Auto White Balance (AWB) with TTL control. The Coolpix 3700 is equipped with 15 Scene Modes, including Portrait, Party/Indoor, Sunset, Museum, Fireworks Show and Panorama Assist, which instantly automate image composition for a wide range of activities, backgrounds and lighting conditions. The Macro Function allows for shots of subjects from as close as 4cm (1.6 inches), while the Multi-area Focus offers a selection of five focus areas. The Coolpix 3700 also has eight movie modes, including one for filming TV-resolution (640 x 480 pixels) movies at 30 frames per second, complete with sound.

Olympus E-1 System Grows
Olympus is continuing its product introductions around their E-1 digital SLR system. At CES we got our first look at the new Zuiko Digital SpecificTM 11-22mm F2.8-3.5 wide-angle zoom lens (equivalent to 22-44mm on a 35mm film camera). The Zuiko Digital 11-22mm F2.8-3.5 features two aspherical glass lenses, with a new multi-coating process applied to the first two lenses which can help remove ghosting and glare — problems often associated with wide-angle lenses. The 11-22mm focusing system also utilizes a floating mechanism, said to deliver sharp, high contrast images up to the lens' closest focusing distance, 0.28m (11.02 inches) at any zoom setting. The folks at Olympus told us that there would be a continuing intro of lenses and accessories designed for the E-1 this year. We asked them to confirm the rumors that they would also introduce more amateur-oriented SLR bodies for the system at PMA, and we got the usual Cheshire grin.

New Sensor Design
Sony has come up with an interesting take on mid-level digicams with their new DSC-F828, part of their Cyber-shot® F-series cameras. The new camera is encased in a black, magnesium alloy body, uses Carl Zeiss T* optics and is the first to incorporate Sony's recently announced four-color filter CCD technology and Real Imaging Processor. The camera offers extensive manual controls, giving advanced photographers a broader range of options in their digital photography. Briefly, the four-color filter CCD is dubbed (RGB+E). It adds an emerald-colored pixel to the filter pattern, which the company says delivers color fidelity that is closer to human color perception.

Printer/Monitor Calibration
A truly vexing problem for all of us is getting the image on the monitor to look like what we eventually get out of the printer. ColorVision's Spyder line of products seems to go a long way to help solve the problem. You hook up the colorimeter to your monitor screen (it has a special soft shoe for LCD screens) and run the software. The wizard guides you through the setup process and, with if you are using one of the Spyder's advanced packages, will allow you to make and scan a print (with their supplied scanner) to generate great color profiles, which you use when you print. We've tried it and it's worth the price in saved paper, and frustration alone.

For the Digital Darkroom User Who Has Everything

Last but not least, there's the Cross Executive Pen for those who work with a tablet like the Wacom or with a tablet PC. Why just work with a run of the mill tab pen when you can have the Cross cachet? Why indeed.

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