Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.
Portraying the digital still camera as an endangered species has been a popular pastime for years in the cellphone industry, and with the high-resolution stills and high-definition video capabilities of the latest round of smartphones, the argument is more convincing than ever when applied to the casual snapshot. But this week at the World Expo in Shanghai, Canon -- a name synonymous with high-quality photography -- offered a vision of a device that not only supersedes the digital still camera, but will likely eliminate photography as we know it.
With an estimated arrival date two decades in the future, the Canon Wonder Camera
concept device has an incredible focal length from macro to 500mm with a single, integrated lens. It boasts massive (unspecified) storage, ultra-high (also unspecified) resolution, multiple facial recognition capabilities beyond that available today, and the ability to keep everything viewable in focus at the same time. But perhaps the most radical thing about this camera is that it's really a camcorder. Rather than take individual stills, Wonder Camera owners would simply have their pick of perfectly crisp photos as frames grabbed from video.
Instead of waiting to fire the shutter when someone smiles, one could simply indicate a point (or range) in the video to pluck later. The camera's resolution might even enable multiple high-resolution photos from different parts of a frame. Imagine creating portraits of every member of a grade school class from just a few video frames of the group.
It's clear that the traditional digital still camera will face as much -- if not more -- pressure from the high-end camcorder as it will from the cameraphone.
It's an inevitable evolution. As storage and sensors evolve to ever-escalating video resolution, we'll eventually be able to use frames from that video as photos suitable for large prints. No more standing around waiting for that perfect moment -- just shoot freely and figure it out later. Yes, to achieve the photo quality of today's DSLRs using this method will require tremendous advances, but consider how much can change in 20 years: two decades ago few Americans had cellphones and that there were no consumer navigation devices or digital cameras. The iPod and TiVo were about ten years away. NCSA Mosaic -- the ancestor to Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator -- didn't appear until 1993. The online avant garde in 1990 were dialing up to CompuServe's text-based service or AOL, and you couldn't send email between those two services. Well, at least you could watch some videotapes; DVD wouldn't be introduced until 1995 or hit the U.S. until 1997.
Deriving photos from video could have other benefits as well. Several digital cameras and camcorders today feature "slow-mo" modes of 240 frames per second or even 600 frames per second. Shooting these intermediate frames at different exposures could produce brilliant HDR photos or even video, assuming of course that camera manufacturers don't find some other way to crack the exposure code by then. One could also overlay audio tracks on photos to retain more of a sense of the environment or capture a choice quote by a child.
Of course, technology often doesn't move forward in the exact way that we expect, and it is hard to believe that many consumes would carry around devices with the cannon-like protruding lenses of the Wonder Camera prototype. But if it even represents a future vision of the DSLR, it's clear that the traditional digital still camera will face as much -- if not more -- pressure from the high-end camcorder as it will from the cameraphone.
Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.