Tech Watch 2009

Tech Watch 2009

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In attempting to pick but seven technologies that we think are worth keeping an eye on over the course of the next year, it is inevitable that there will be a few significant ones we’ll overlook.

The seven we’ve decided to take a look at here, some of which have been around for a while, are based on the thinking that they appear ready to have a major impact on the imaging market in the next 12-15 months and that impact could get more significant as the months roll on.

For those of you that are keenly focused on the retail print and “lifestyle” photo products market, you won’t see news of the new technology planned for 2009 in this piece. There are two reasons for that. For one, most of the really exciting tech planned in that category is under NDA and won’t be revealed til the doors swing open to PMA 2009. The other reason is that we are planning a special pullout section on that market in our March PMA issue, so why spoil the fun now?

I’ll admit, my crystal ball is just back from the shop so don’t hold me to any of this, but I feel fairly certain you’ll hear from these technologies at some point. So then, let’s dive into our “Magnificent Seven Techs” for 2009.

A “Pico” Into the Future
With a legion of young Americans walking around with their faces buried in tiny 2- to 3-inch screens watching movies, surfing the Net and yes, sometimes even sharing images, we have always felt they’d enjoy the experience far more if the screens were just a bit bigger. But alas, then the portability factor is taken away.

What if they could make the screen bigger whenever they wanted to? What if we all could, just to share something with a group for but a moment or two? Well, this is why we think the Pico-Projection system has such huge potential. The small screen viewing experience is fine as a solo act but when you want to share something, if even for a quick look, the ability to push a button and project an image on a wall or a floor up to 40 inches, in crystal clear focus is, simply put, way cool.

The Pico projectors are tiny projectors that will be integrated into a wide variety of CE devices such as smart phones, digicams, personal media players and the like with the first of those expected to be spotted by the end of this year. These Pico-projectors are expected to use either laser, LED or hybrid laser/LED illumination.

Our first peek at this tech was at the 2008 CES as Texas Instruments demo’d a cell phone-sized prototype of its digital-light projector (DLP), which uses a MEMS chip with a million micro-mirrors to project images. More recently, Microvision tells us they have downsized the Pico projector by replacing TI’s million-mirror MEMS chip with their own single-mirror MEMS chip. The company claims this system can now be produced cheaply enough, “to become standard equipment on future cell phones and digital cameras.”

This seems like such a dynamic way to share images, even right after they’ve been captured, we just can’t imagine that consumers won’t be demanding this feature on all the aforementioned devices as soon as they see it in action.

Apparently we’re not alone in this thinking as Research & Markets projects (no pun intended) that the Pico-Projector market could reach 30 million units by 2012.

The Lag Drag
Lots of new technology is hitting the camera phone market but one we think will have a major impact comes from Lund, Sweden-based Scalado in the form of what they are calling the Scalado Camera Engine.

The company is promising “zero shutter lag” in camera phones with their new technology as well as the ability to zoom into the resulting JPEG images to review the details of the image in real-time.

The Scalado Camera Solution is actually based on two products: SpeedTags IP and the aforementioned Scalado Camera Engine. The SpeedTags IP is a minimal modification to the HW JPEG encoder that enables the encoder to produce modified JPEG images, referred to as SpeedTagged JPEGs. Several camera sensors and camera modules for camera phones are already embedding the SpeedTags IP, such as sensors from Aptina, OmniVision, Samsung and MtekVision.

“Thanks to the new technology, manufacturers can now offer real-time viewing and capturing of high-resolution images, totally eliminating shutter lag. As a result, camera phone users can finally take memorable photos instead of missing the moment,” says Sami Niemi CTO of Scalado.

While there are certainly other issues currently facing the camera phone market today, the elimination of shutter-lag would be a big boom for this category as issues such as resolution and removable media are already being addressed.

Golden Retriever

So many images, so little help finding them. That has been the mantra for digital imaging consumers since the first digicams hit the market late last decade. We have often sang the chorus in this publication that images consumers can’t find are images they most certainly will never print.

We’ve seen myriad programs that, in one form or another, help organize image collections, but they always require a bit too much work from the end-user up front or they are way too involved for the less tech-savvy among us.

Seattle-based Tagcow, which actually launched early last year, is a photo tagging service that we think will generate a lot of buzz in 2009 for the way it categorizes photos, allowing users to quickly find specific images based on people, items or locations from among collections of thousands. It essentially makes massive numbers of photos that are stored on sites like Flickr or in personal photo folders on a hard drive easily searchable by what appears in the photo.

The focus for the company currently centers on areas such as catalog production, e-tailers, stock photography collections, marketing companies, online sites needing to screen content and search engine optimization companies. However, that focus is beginning to broaden as the imaging industry begins to realize the potential the service holds.

“Our online metadata tagging service is highly customizable to meet the specific needs of each client,” explained Michael Droz, chief business architect of Tagcow. “Tagcow essentially enables organizations to shorten the digital product manufacturing process and maximize the value of their digital image assets.”

He added that the company is looking to broaden its scope in 2009 and imaging retail is very much on their radar.

We’ve seen, and were quite impressed with the visual search capabilities of San Mateo, Calif.-based Riya’s software, which has remained a Web-based proposition to date. But the Tagcow solution appears to take image recognition to new heights as details such as a “red phone” or a “lighthouse” that appear in the image become part of the tagging process. Obviously, specific people are part of the mix as well as long as they are identified prior to the Tagcow upload.

So then, how do they do it? Several Web sites are claiming the service is handled with people actually doing the tagging. The Tagcow Web site explains the process thusly:

“Consumers can upload their images to us using either the single file upload tool or download our Java application for larger, multiple file uploads. Once uploaded, they have the option of requesting both descriptive or people tagging. Descriptive tags are used to identify objects within the photo and can include such abstract tags such as human emotions. People tagging requires users to upload pictures of individuals and associate tags to that person. The images are then uploaded along with a generic tagging template to our worker network, such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Once the job has been accepted and completed by the worker, the job is submitted back to Tagcow.com for quality review check.

After the quality check has been completed, the images are released to the user’s account for download. Our target is 24-48 hours for the entire process to be completed once the images have been submitted. If you maintain your images on repositories, such as Flickr, the user may choose to associate their account credentials, allowing copies of their images to be automatically pulled down, tagged and uploaded back to their repository.”

Whatever the method, the imaging industry and the end-users standing behind it are screaming for help and we think Tagcow’s company slogan says it all – Udder tagging bliss.  

A New Way to Share Apeers
We have lost something in the area of sharing our memories in the digital age. Far too often we are sending images via e-mail or watching them whiz by on a computer screen and you can’t help but feel that we haven’t really “shared” anything.

It is with this notion in mind that San Francisco-based Apeer has developed a system for file sharing that puts some interaction and, quite frankly, some life back into the experience. The system is currently aimed at enterprises and companies like advertising agencies but a version for consumer use doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.

Apeer CEO Bob Goldstein calls this  “the world’s first all-in-one group communication and collaboration application for digital media.” As we mentioned, one of the pieces many people feel is missing from the sharing experience with much of digital imaging today is reaction and intimacy as many consumers simply send images off in an e-mail or post them to an online gallery and that’s that – there’s no actual interaction with family or friends.

The Apeer technology essentially transforms post-and-share photo applications into instant interactive, social networking experiences. As the company explains, the Apeer Professional is a new and unique vehicle for communicating with friends and technology enables “synchronous and instant multi-user, participatory exchanges where all parties can simultaneously view photos, hear music, and see videos in real time over the Internet – all in one window.” Apeer also provides conversational tools with built-in voice and chat for what they call “a very robust interactive experience.” And that it was when we were recently treated to a demo.

“The surge of professional and user-generated graphics, photos and video content for use as entertainment and communications called for a new, next-generation tool for instantly and simultaneously sharing this content either one to one or to a group where all parties can participate,” said Goldstein. “Apeer creates compelling visual networking experiences by connecting individuals or groups to digital media in ways never before possible.”

The Apeer workspace can be downloaded and run with no installation process and the user is ready to roll  in less than a minute.  To share images, video, and MP3s, the users start an Apeer session, then simply drag and drop files onto the Apeer interface – an on screen box essentially. The images or audio files appear instantly to all of the users included in the session, and can be played or viewed directly in the Apeer interface.

There are a variety of tools available for collaborative work including zoom and rotate functions, a pointer, circle and rectangle drawing pens, and a freeform pen with selectable colors and stroke widths. When a session participant uses a tool, the results are instantly visible to all participants, so that, for example, if one person uses the pen tool to circle part of an image, every session participant will see the circle drawn instantly.

The company combines the experience with their built-in Internet voice calling and instant message functions so instead of hearing about how people felt about your memories a week later, you are busy making more memories interacting and reacting in real time.

The Heart of it All
We believe this whole notion of “living room imaging” is a good one, it just hasn’t really hit the fast lane yet. A big reason for that is the starts and stops in the set-top box or digital content “Hub” technology.

At the CES show back in January of 2007, Dell and Microsoft demonstrated living room PCs able to directly receive a digital cable TV signal, bypassing the need for a set-top box. Since that time other PC makers – including HP and Sony – signed agreements with Microsoft to build such products based on the Windows Media Center.

Yes, there is lots of product in this category with varying levels of capability, but from what we’ve seen, we think the Windows Home Server might have the strongest pair of legs.

It’s one of those products, that upon merely hearing about it one might say, “Why would I want that?” Once you see what this technology is actually capable of, that opinion quickly changes to, “I have to have that.”

The ability to easily back up all the content on multiple computers in your home, access that content from anywhere – home, office or on the road – organize that content and make it instantly actionable is “holy grail” kind of stuff as far as we are concerned.

Microsoft essentially refers to the product as a “stay at home” server that “delivers the benefits of powerful server technology used by many people at work within a simple, easy-to-use solution for the home.” Each night it automatically backs up home computers running Windows XP and Windows Vista, provides a central place to organize various digital media, and includes a free Windows Live Internet address to access the home server from virtually anywhere and share content with friends and family.

The Home Server also monitors the health and security status of home computers and can stream media to other devices in the home, such as the Xbox 360 video game and entertainment system, allowing people to enjoy digital music, photos and videos on their television.

Microsoft also recently introduced the new Power Pack 1, a software upgrade that delivers a range of enhancements that includes a new way to protect data, in case of a disaster such as a fire or theft, by enabling the backup of a home server to external storage. In addition, Power Pack 1 improves its remote access features by providing a simple way to upload multiple files, presenting photo thumbnail views and enabling more control of remote user access.

“We believe that Windows Home Server will spearhead the growth of an important new product category,” explained J.P. Gownder, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “The proliferation of consumer digital assets creates a need for the functionality of a home server. And multi-PC households are growing rapidly, along with home networks.”

It will certainly be interesting watching this category grow and develop further and imaging retail should be keeping a close eye on its progress. Consumers with better organized image and video collections are consumers that are far more likely to bring those memories in to retail to do something with.

Camera for an Eye
Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one before…A guy walks into a bar with a tiny camera mounted to his fake right eye. Well, I’ll stop because you probably haven’t heard that one before and, more importantly, it’s no joke.

Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence has approached a company called Tessera regarding having one of their tiny camera modules attached to his fake right eye so he can “unobtrusively” film his next documentary. The subject matter for that film, how cameras are beginning to show up everywhere, brings us to our next Tech to Watch in 2009.

As mobile imaging begins to really turn the corner in the next year or so you can expect San Jose-based Tessera technologies to make some loud noises within the category. The company is sinking some major dollars into the development of extremely small, low-cost “intelligent” camera modules that can be deployed in a wide range of consumer devices including, toys, multi-sensor cameras, automobiles, televisions and remote control devices.

One of the major challenges within the mobile handset industry is the limitations of the onboard camera. Picture quality begins to become an issue as some kind of mechanical zoom eventually must enter the picture at which point portability and cost begin to become major issues. Digital zoom, as this industry is well aware, has its advantages, but with an eventual loss in image quality.

Tessera Technologies believes it has found the solution to this problem with their OptiML – what they term as the industry’s first non-mechanical optical zoom technology.

OptiML Zoom essentially eliminates these issues  by combining cutting edge optics and computing to produce a lens that is small and cheap, yet offers a better zoom than the current mobile phone camera.

While this certainly bodes well for the camera phone market, we think the idea that Tessera is producing camera modules this tiny and at the quality level they claim has us thinking pretty decent little cameras could start turning up all over the place. Okay, we’re not talking about a Nikon or Canon quality DSLR lens here, but what we are talking about is a lens that can be mass produced for under $2 a pop with a quality level that certainly moves past the “good enough” label we’ve seen on the majority of camera phones currently in the market. And you can bet the issue of image quality is being addressed if that guy in the bar with the camera stuck in his eye has any say in the matter.

Promotion Commotion

Okay – this one isn’t actually a technology but it might dwarf the others in importance as we move through the next few years. Once again, I point to a comment David Guidry of Lakeside Camera Photoworks made last year to drive home the point of how important marketing is, particularly of these new “lifestyle” photo products.

“What I have seen since we have had to basically start over the business is that we have a communication problem in this industry, not a product problem,” he explained. “The reaction from consumes to these lifestyle products is that they are way more excited than they ever were over a 4×6-inch print but we aren’t communicating exactly what these products are and how easy they are to do.”

Guidry added that he feels the industry, as well as he himself, have been guilty of “over-complicating” some of the newer products and services and likened his new approach to more of a “restaurant menu” marketing scheme.

“The customer simply needs to see all they can do in a simple, easy to understand form and then help them pick the product that it perfect for them,” he said.

It’s the “tree falling in the forest” analogy with a lot of this stuff. Once consumers actually see how easy these products are to create, their eyes glaze over and they can’t wait to get the stuff up and about throughout their homes.

I recently had an exchange with a neighbor after she spotted a photo book I had propped up on one of those tiny easels in my living room. Upon picking it up and thumbing through it she commented, “This is beautiful. Where did you get it?” After I told her that I made it online she responded, “I could never do this. I’m not creative enough and I’d never have the time.”

It’s up to the industry in general and photo retail specifically to let her know she’s wrong on both fronts. yy

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