Getting the digital picture

Getting the digital picture

Using a small box snug in the palm of a hand, an image is recorded and in five seconds or less appears on an LCD screen before being dispatched to a computer to make touchups or determine size before it pops out of the printer on your desk.

This is the reality of digital photography today and something into which no less than 16 multinational organisations have invested several billion dollars to ensure they are in the picture if it really takes off.

A strong consumer market for digital cameras is emerging in Australia with prices now edging towards $1000 and under, with certain features now becoming standard. Industries such as real estate, insurance and the law are showing strong interest, especially as they move online.

But resellers considering the move towards digital cameras should appreciate that this is still a very young market, with several manufacturers spanning the photographic, electronics and computing industries all trying to outguess each other and ultimately reflecting a cloudy vision as to what people actually want.

While the consumer space is settling, there are likely to be many more as-yet-unrealised opportunities in the corporate space and other markets.

'The digital camera marketplace recently entered the value-for-money zone whereby the broad community is able to get very good technology for what they believe is a good price,' according to John Slack- Smith, head of information technology and communications with Harvey Norman. 'It's heading north.'

Digital cameras first emerged in Australia some four to five years ago but it wasn't until just over two years ago they fell under the $2000-3000 mark. At that time, the industry assumed there would be a similar mass consumer response to that experienced by the PC industry. The race was on to get prices way down.

Unfortunately, the result was that quality and features suffered to the extent that consumers 'left the market in droves', according to Glenn Stubbs, product manager with Canon Australia.

'There's a perception that digital is better nowadays,' he said, 'but consumers really need to be able to see the results before they buy.'

Most consumers are pretty familiar with good quality image produced by the standard $200 film camera so when they pay $800 or so for a digital version they want something especially good, he added. 'The demand trend is certainly towards high quality.'

Soon Teh, founder and CEO of Melbourne-based IXLA, one of the world's leading developers of digital photographic software, believes that 'we are at the stage where normal prints are indistinguishable from digital'.

Teh expects sales of digital cameras and accompanying packages to finally go through the roof this Christmas. IXLA, which conducts most of its business in the US and Japan, will in the next month release a complete package including a low-spec digital camera with its own image management software for just under $200.

Demand in the US for these deals is massive, Teh said, but IXLA is only planning to reserve about 2000 units for Australia.

IXLA claims to be the world's leading developer of software which interfaces digital cameras with computers. Early this year the company announced a partnership with Kodak and Intel aimed towards furthering innovation in this area. This year the company also created, an Internet portal for professional and amateur photographers wishing to access information on digital and traditional photography in addition to buying and selling equipment.

Sanyo claims to be the largest manufacturer of digital cameras in the world. The company is cur-rently working on a new chip to enable almost instantaneous processing of images, according to company spokesman Chris Maw. When an image is taken with a digital camera, it is first captured by the CCD (charge coupled device) and then typically processed via three chips. This usually translates into a delay of some 10 seconds, Maw said.

However, Sanyo's Large Scale Integration chip is designed to consolidate all three chips into one capable of handling the entire process.

'Speed of image processing, especially online, will be an important factor for consumers in this market,' Canon's Stubbs said.

'Eighteen months ago, digital photography was prohibitively expensive for the average person,' said David Bevan, consumer products manager with Hanimex Australia - sole Australian distributor of Fuji Photo Film.

But one of the biggest obstacles, according to IXLA's Teh, is storage. While all of the manufacturers interviewed for this story boasted high resolution rates, none had a decent storage story to offer beyond compatibility for add-on devices produced by companies like Iomega and IBM.

While manufacturers are crowing about 2.3 or more megapixel resolution, images shot with these cameras can take anything up to 5MB of space.

'This is not what the casual user wants,' Teh said, especially given the popularity of sending images online. 'It can take forever.'

High-resolution cameras are also forcing improvements in CCD technology. A CCD or charge coupled device is the sensor which actually captures the image in a digital camera.

Fuji Photo Film is actually working to develop the next generation of CCD technology, Hanimex's Bevan said. He believes that CCD is due for an overhaul if it is to do justice to higher-resolution cameras. In 1996, the best resolutions offered by digital cameras were around 350,000 pixels.

'Manufacturers who have now reached the 2.5 megapixel mark will soon hit the point of diminishing returns with the existing CCD technology,' Bevan said.

But despite the obvious need for improvement, Dick Smith claims it has seen enormous growth in the consumer digital camera industry over the last year.

Phil Johnson, a spokesman for Dick Smith Australia, said this has been driven by the long- awaited emergence of cameras offering megapixel resolutions for under $1000.

Dick Smith sells 1 mega pixel digital cameras for just under $300. Now consumers can buy certain brands of digital camera offering over 2 megapixels for $800-$900. 'This is shaping into a mass market product now,' Johnson said.

Dick Smith claims to have sold 'tons' of digital cameras to consumers but sees one of its strongest markets as being insurance companies and real estate agents, the later of which is now very reliant on the Internet and therefore seeking more efficient ways to present properties online.

Another notable Dick Smith customer, Johnson said, is a smash repair company using digital cameras to assess and finalise repair quotes online.

Only in the last few months have digital cameras even appeared on the radars of the major analyst companies, with many now preparing their debut reports in this area.

IDC Australia last week began a study, with senior analyst Les Champkin expecting to reveal a market with enormous potential for resellers, albeit one beset by uncertainty.

'The technology is certainly there but in order for the market to flourish prices must continue to fall at their current rates along with increases in features.'

One of Australia's largest and most experienced photographic and now IT-focused resellers, Ted's Camera Store, predicts the emergence of a very fast growing and diverse digital photography market.

'Consumers now have a new darkroom - the PC,' said Rychard Borysiewicz, national product manager, computers and imaging, Ted's Camera Store.

'Unlike most of the computer industry, the digital camera market is very buoyant at the moment.'

The death of traditional photography is still a long way off though, he said, mainly because digital cameras are yet to offer the flexibility of their traditional cousins while young families, typically amongst the highest camera consumers, will almost certainly opt for the latter for many years to come. 'People still don't really know what they want.'

At printing giants Hewlett-Packard and Epson, however, digital photography is driving innovation in the world of photo printers. Both companies are hoping that owners of digital cameras will look at complementing their investment with a high-resolution 'photo' printer or scanner.

Their argument is that if someone pays several hundred dollars for a digital camera they will welcome the opportunity to produce their own high-quality images on a high-resolution printer in their home or office rather than deposit the film with a development service.

Major mini-lab companies such as Kodak and Fuji, however, have already invested heavily in developing technology for digital photography mini-labs. Although the costs are as yet prohibitively expensive - one mini-lab is said to require an investment of some half a million dollars - the vision of these companies is that digital camera users will simply drop their film at the local mini-lab the same as they have always done.

It's an attractive dream for those companies in the massive photo-lab business but some are pre- dicting that digital photography may just burst that particular bubble.

The only major tier-one computer vendor to offer a digital camera, Hewlett-Packard is a relative newcomer to this market, releasing its first digital camera only two years ago.

According to Edmund Wong, market development manager, HP Asia-Pacific, the company plans to exploit its reputation and market share in printers to woo those users interested in digital photography.

High-resolution scanners capable of handling film or small negatives, as well as an expanding range of photo printers, are evidence of this commitment.

'I think it will be a few years before people move away from their traditional cameras,' Wong said, 'but the main driver will be this notion of equipping people to develop their own photos at home or work.'

In fact, while Wong said that most digital camera users also own PCs, HP and others are developing technology to enable direct-image downloads to a printer. And, he added, recent advances in colour mixing now allow users to produce images of like quality to those produced by traditional photo labs.

HP's new PhotoSmart P1000 photo printer, due in Australia later this month, actually allows for 29 separate layers of colour to be squirted in the space of any one pixel. It will be priced at $799.

Another driver for the Digital camera market, Wong said, will be what he calls the second generation of printers capable of supporting normal office tasks in addition to sophisticated digital photo processing and development. Wong admits that it is shaping up to be a very difficult market, with no less than 16 brands of digital camera currently jostling for position. But he thinks there will be 'sufficient demand to sustain the market for the next two years before any major consolidation occurs'.

After ceasing all sales and marketing for digital cameras early this year, Epson Australia is currently in the process of reviewing that decision in the light of huge success in the US and Japan, according to company spokesman Thomas O'Donohue.

'We are reviewing our options at the moment but I think that it is inevitable that we will return,' O'Donohue said.

Epson is currently leading a US research team which is attempting to develop a system for guaranteeing the reliability of digital images in court.

Digital images are yet to be approved as admissible evidence in many countries and Epson is encouraging the use of its Image Authentication System (IAS), which records not only the details as to when a photo was taken but also accurately documents any changes to that image. Epson is reportedly discussing this technology with a number of UK police units.

'This is going to be a huge area for digital photography,' O'Donohue said. And so is everything else, we might add.what's new from . . . AgfaAgfa's new point-and-shoot digital camera, ePhoto 780c, has improved features but reduced cost, making it perfect for home and small office environments, according to the company.

Similar to the original ePhoto 780, the camera now comes in a metallic blue housing and features XGA resolution (1024 x 768) in an easy-to-use digital camera design.

The ePhoto 780c uses Agfa's PhotoGenie technology to achieve a high standard of image quality (XGA) from the camera's 350,000 pixel CCD sensor, taking only one-and-a-half seconds in image processing time.

The 2MB SmartMedia card, included in the cost of the camera, can store between 12 and 96 images, depending on capture mode.

PhotoGenie enhances images as they are downloaded to the computer. Images captured at the highest resolution mode (780) are reconstructed using artificial intelligence techniques to produce images that rival the quality of those captured with more expensive XGA cameras, while at the lower resolution settings, PhotoGenie will remove JPEG artifacts, pixelation, jagged edges and posterisation.

The camera features a 1.8 inch colour LCD, for framing and reviewing shots.

The ePhoto 780c package costs an estimated $499 and includes the camera, cables (PC, Macintosh, TV), powerful software, 4 A4 alkaline batteries, softcase, handstrap, and the 2MB SmartMedia removable memory card.

Tel 03) 9264 7711's new from . . . FujiEncased in a smart aluminium case, the Fujifilm MX-2700 weighs in at only 240g, making it the lightest digital camera on the market at the moment. It is also one of the most expensive in its range.

This camera features a wide-angle lens for landscapes and so on, while the close-up and zoom capabilities are a big improvement on the previous MX-700 model.

Included is a 16MB SmartMedia storage card capable of recording 17 or 35 images in 1800 x 1200 mode. The 2700 comes with serial cables for PC and Mac, although hardcore users may want to consider the SmartMedia floppy adapter, priced at about $170, which stores images on a normal 3.5 inch floppy.

The package also includes a rechargable LiON battery pack and charger, DC, video and serial ports, in additon to serial cables for PC and Mac. RRP is $1899.

Distributor: Hanimex Tel (02) 9466 2900 http://www.fujifilm.comwhat's new from . . . SanyoOf all the cameras reviewed by ARN, Sanyo's gold-coloured VPC-SX500 is right up the alley of the sports or wildlife enthusiast.

Building on Sanyo's new Large Scale Integration chip architecture, this 1.5 megapixel camera is capable of almost instantaneous photographing and reproduction with approximately 20 continuous shots at 7.5 exposures per second.

The VPC-SX500 features VGA size (Quick Time Format) for video sound, editing and reproduction. It also comes with the following accessories included: MGI Photosuite 8.0, Sanyo Software Pack 4 x pcs, AA NiMH batteries NiMH battery charger PC Cable, AV cable and 8MB CompactFlash card.

This camera also supports IBM's new 340MB microdrive but this is not included in the camera and could cost as much as $400.

If the optional microdrive is used, the user can take up to 3640 photographs in 50 minutes.

The VPC-SX500 will be available in Australia later this month. RRP: $1999.

Tel (02) 8825 2822's new from . . . Hewlett-PackardThe PhotoSmart C500 is HP's foray into the 2-plus megapixel realm. One of its most important features is its JetSend technology for wireless printing, which allows users to literally point, shoot and have an image in their hands in the blink of an eye.

This sleak little digi-snapper also features a powerful 3x optical and 2x digital zoom for those embarrassing close-ups.

The C500 also comes with rechargable batteries and charger, 16MB CompactFlash card (the standard is 8MB), PC (USB, serial) and video cables. HP also throws in its Photo Imaging software for indexing and creating attractive albums.

Minimum requirements are either a 133MHz plus Pentium II or Macintosh Power PC with 120MHz processor for optimum performance. However, HP recommends 300MHz and 233MHz respectively for optimim performance. RRP: $699.

Tel 13 1347

what's new from . . . Canon

At a mere 270 grams, Canon's PowerShot S10 is as close as it gets in weightlessness to Fuji's 240g MX-2700. Styled after the popular Canon Elf cameras, this camera has a smart look and feel, with a combination aluminium and stainless steel body with collapsible barrel 35-70mm zoom lens.

With 2.1 megapixels resolution, an ample offering for the leisure user, the P10 ships with an 8MB CompactFlash memory card and also features a direct video out terminal to enable the display of anything on the LCD screen on a TV set. Serial and USB connection cables for Mac and PC are also included.

Its RRP is $1599.

Tel 1800 812 197

what's new from . . . Kodak

The DC215 Gold Millennium Edition is Kodak's product for the family or first-time digital camera user, reflecting the move towards the design of traditional 35mm cameras and away from the more futuristic shape of, say, the Fuji MX range.

A megapixel digital camera with 29-58mm zoom sliding out of a gold metal body, the DC215 comes with a modest 8MB flash card, allowing users to store 25 high-resolution and up to 115 low-resolution images.

A video out jack allows users to view images on their TVs. Also included are Adobe PhotoDeluxe 3.0 Home Edition and Adobe pagemill, an easy-to-use package for creating Web sites.

Unlike most cameras on the market, the DC215 does not come with AC power adapter or battery recharger, which can make the power-hungry process of previewing images a little difficult unless users invest in their own rechargable battery kit. Its RRP is $999.

Tel 1800 674 831

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