Digital cameras mount fightback

There is a small revolution happening in the realm of photography. Long after the mobile phone has firmly displaced the point and shoot camera, a couple of emerging solutions are now threatening to disrupt things elsewhere in the ecosystem.

Android 4.2, first seen on the new Nexus 4, has a new feature called photosphere. As its name suggests, it takes panorama stitching that is now commonplace one step further and turns it into an entire, almost 360-degree sphere which is interactive, allowing the viewer to turn around and zoom in and out, very similar to Google’s street view.

Having just upgraded my own phone to Jellybean 4.2, I spent the evening in the garden amongst the chickens and butterflies taking a few photospheres and came out quite impressed. It took a while to take all the photos and after that it took my Galaxy Nexus a good three or four minutes to stitch the images together into an interactive sphere while the phone slowed to a snail’s pace. The phone got very hot while it was doing the calculations - easily the hottest I remember it ever being.

However, at this stage, sharing to Facebook only results in a traditional stitched up panorama. To share an interactive sphere with the world, Google Plus is the social network of choice for now.

Each sphere was about 4.5 MB. Not huge in absolute terms but much bigger than a normal photo. Just think of all the spheres clogging up 3G networks when 4.2 goes mainstream to more phones.

Another solution (or problem, in the eyes of the networks) are an entire new generation of Wi-Fi enabled SD memory cards. Eye-Fi was the granddaddy of them all and had a monopoly on the market for many years, but now the SD Association has approved the FlashAir standard. Toshiba and PQI are among the first offering cards compliant with this new open specification.

Olympus has decided to bundle a Flashair card with its latest micro four-thirds cameras, the E-PM1 and E-PL5, which will no doubt help jumpstart the market.

The core idea is simple enough, to add a Wi-Fi interface to the memory card itself that operates independently of the camera. But here the two solutions diverge.

Whereas Eye-Fi is a proprietary cloud-based solution that uploads selected photos to a central server for relay to your PC or posting to Facebook or Flickr (and a few other sites), Flashair is just an interface that allows two-way transfer of files to and from the SD card over Wi-Fi. Eye-Fi, by default, connects to an access point (such as your phone in tethering mode) to upload everything to the Eye-Fi cloud. Flashair is an access point that allows apps on a tablet or phone to pull photos from it wirelessly.

I have an Eye-Fi card and last month I used a tad over 10 GB of data, though I must admit half of it was video streaming. The ease of using a proper camera and uploading pictures directly to Facebook without having to settle for a poor quality camera phone picture is very addictive.

And then there is the Samsung Galaxy Camera. An Android 4.1 Jellybean cameraphone that is a phone first and a camera second. With a 21x zoom lens, physical buttons and levers to take a photo and zoom and a proper flash on one side, and a quad-core Android 4-inch Android experience on the other side, it seemed a perfect device for someone who likes to snap and share.

I must admit I came dangerously close to whipping out my credit card for one. The idea of snapping shots while out and about and sharing them immediately was appealing, but what made me decide to wait a generation were the London launch photos, the one that featured Angelina Jolie.

The photographs had that flat, artificial look amongst them. No, I am not talking about her lips, but rather the way the photographs were as if they were from a simple point and shoot camera, and one that is priced as much as an entry level interchangeable lens camera at that. Of course, no point and shoot would have the ease of uploading, cropping, processing and sharing photos, nor would an entry level interchangeable lens camera hope to fit in your pocket. I ended up feeling that the Galaxy Camera was an overpriced duck, able to do many things but master at none.

People’s usage habits are changing very rapidly. All this reminds me of a conversation I once had on LTE 2100 with Ericsson Thailand’s country manager Joacim Damgard. Why would any operator sacrifice valuable 3G spectrum for 4G given the scarcity of LTE devices on this band? Well, one operator in Japan did and the reason was increased uplink efficiency, brought about precisely because of this rise in photo and video sharing.

Perhaps this revolution in photography will be a catalyst for early 4G adoption after all.
 

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