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A Multimedia Archaeological Tour On Your Mobile

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #186, June 14, 2006)

An Italian-led research project is developing a service that allows visitors to use their camera-phones to get a personalized multimedia guide to archaeological sites and museums. The Agamemnon project is working on an interactive multimedia system that provides relevant text, videos, audio and pictures with 3D reconstructions, to visitors’ mobile telephones, says Matteo Villa, an engineer from the project coordinator, Milan-based TXT e-Solutions. Agamemnon tailors a visit path based on site visitors’ interests, cultural knowledge and time available. The on-screen itinerary constantly updates as the visitor moves around the site. The system’s image-recognition function allows visitors to dial in, photograph objects they are interested in and receive information about them. Agamemnon also takes voice commands. The IST (Information Society Technologies)-funded project, named after the king of Mycenae, leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War, began in January 2004 and is scheduled to end on June 30, 2006. Its computer scientists and technicians developed the system’s software from scratch, based on a Java Enterprise backbone with JavaBean components. They are currently testing the research prototype in pilot sites in Paestum, Italy, and Mycenae, Greece.

In the pilot projects, staff members are pretending to be site visitors, to see how everything works. “We are getting positive results, but there are still a few things to fine tune,” says Villa. “The image recognition technology, which uses telephone’s digital camera as an input-output device, is one of the last parts that needs to be finished. For example, some of the monuments are in good condition. Those are easy to recognize. However, others are just a few rocks, and those can be extremely difficult to identify correctly.” In experiments at the University of Genoa, which developed the system’s image-processing algorithms, researchers are using GPS to boost image recognition results. Although some phone models already have GPS, this feature will be more feasible for future phone models, on which GPS functions will be more common. Since archaeological sites are sometimes in remote areas not covered by high-speed networks, the system includes options for low-bandwidth connections, but supplying less information.

The use of connected cameras — primarily camera-phones today — as input-output devices, is rapidly increasing. Every week, at least one or two new projects or technologies is added to the mix that enable users to photograph an object, sign, ad, printed code, or embedded watermark and retrieve information or trigger a transaction of some kind. We believe the trend will continue to grow, not only generating increased data revenues for carriers and application providers, but also more consumer benefits and increased interest in actually using the cameras in their phones. If component suppliers, handset vendors, and operators can deliver a satisfactory experience and improved image quality, who knows where this might lead? A mounting spiral — dare we say a virtuous circle — of usage and profits and ever more innovative and unexpected applications? Precisely what we’ve been predicting — and impatiently awaiting — since we began publication of this newsletter four years ago. [Europe, components, content, handsets, services, usage]

DoCoMo Launches Credit Card Phones

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #185, June 7, 2006)

DoCoMo announced in April its intention to launch DCMX consumer credit services via iD, DoCoMo’s brand and platform for mobile credit cards, and this week the carrier delivered on its promise by releasing three handsets with DCMX. Users of Osaifu-Keitai (mobile wallet) phones in the 902iS series will be able to choose from two plans to make highly secure purchases from small to large amounts using their phones as DoCoMo-issued credit cards. Making a purchase is as simple as waving one’s phone in front of a dedicated iD reader/writer in a store, with no signature required. Payments will be billed together with the user’s monthly DoCoMo phone charges. There will be no membership fee to use the service. DCMX mini service offers a monthly credit line of ¥10,000 ($88), while credit lines from ¥200,000 ($1,765), as well as cash advances, will be available under the full DCMX service. Purchases over ¥10,000 will require the customer to enter a four-digit password.

Users under age 20 will require a guardian’s consent, and must apply at a DoCoMo Shop, accompanied by a guardian. Customers will be able to use their mobile phones to confirm remaining credit balances. For security, DoCoMo Osaifu-Keitai phones can be locked remotely if misplaced or stolen. The user will merely need to call their misplaced/stolen phone from a registered phone number. Or, using the Omakase Lock service, the user will be able to call DoCoMo to request their phone be locked. Users can also set their phones to require a password each time before the DCMX service is used.

The three new DCMX phones are the D902iS from Mitsubishi, the N902iS from NEC, and the P902iS from Panasonic. In addition to the new credit card and now-familiar mobile wallet functions (there are more than three million Osaifu-Keitai in Japan), the handsets offer the usual rich smorgasbord of features found in Japanese phones.

The slider model D902iS has a 4MP CCD auto-focus main camera (2MP Super CCD Honeycomb sensor from Fuji Photo Film) with 28x, 65-step digital zoom, anti-shake technology and a sliding lens cover that activates the camera. There’s also a CIF (288 x 352-pixel) CMOS sub-camera for video calls, support for miniSD removable media, and a 2.8-inch, 240 x 400-pixel, 262,144-color TFT LCD that offers a mode that makes it difficult for others to see the display. In addition to the security features noted above, the 110 x 49 x 19.9-mm, 124-gram D902iS offers “voice certification,” which recognizes a security keyword in the user’s voice to unlock the wallet functions.

The N902iS — a 104 x 51 x 23-mm, 114-gram clamshell model — also sports a 4MP CCD auto-focus main camera (again produced by a 2MP Super CCD Honeycomb sensor from Fuji) with anti-shake technology (“super digital hand blurring revision function”). There’s also a VGA CMOS sub-camera for video calling, support for miniSD, and a 2.5-inch, 240 x 345-pixel, 242,144-color TFT LCD main display and a 1-inch, 120 x 90-pixel, 65,536-color TFT LCD sub-display. The N902iS has two additional features worth noting that utilize the handset’s cameras. The first is a face recognition function that can be used to control access to the mobile wallet functions and other protected applications. We assume the technology was supplied by Neven Vision, which supplied the same functionality for the Sharp SH902i introduced last October [“Neven Vision’s Face Recognition on FOMA Phone,” MIR #175, March 15, 2006]. The second feature utilizes image recognition technology from Evolution Robotics [“Evolution Robotics’ Visual Search,” MIR Wee #182, May 17, 2006] to identify products and locate them in an online store. The combination of DCMX credit card services, 4MP camera, and image recognition offered by the N902iS would make it possible to instantly buy a watch in the window of a store that is closed, for example, or a piece of clothing worn by a model in an advertisement. Companies such as Amazon and Tower Records will make their products available through the service.

The P902iS — another clamshell model, measuring 106 x 49 x 21 mm and 109 grams — has a 2MP Maicovicon primary camera with 12.5x, 31-step digital zoom and a CIF CMOS sub-camera. There’s support for miniSD, a 2.4-inch, 240 x 320-pixel, 262,144-color TFT LCD main display, and a 1.0-inch, 4,096-color, STN LCD sub-display as well as a 7 x 7 dot matrix of white LEDs for displaying various information and custom lighting effects. The P902iS is also equipped with an advanced face authentication security function that enables the user to lock the IC card and PIM functions in “Double Security” mode together with the handset PIN number. There’s also a timer function that locks protected applications after a specified interval when you close the handset. The Panasonic phone also has Bluetooth, still relatively rare for Japanese phones, most of which have Infrared. The P902iS is compatible with DoCoMo’s Chaku-Uta Full service enabling users to download full music tracks from i-mode sites and comes pre-installed with ‘2006 FIFA world cup German conference’ i-applications.

The advanced features and functionality of the 902iS series highlight once again what a backward, third world country we are in the U.S. as far as mobile phones are concerned. It’s been five and a half years since camera-phones were introduced in Japan and three and half since they were introduced in the U.S., but we’re no closer to closing that two-year gap than we were in 2002. If anything, the gap seems to be widening. We’re nowhere near having mobile phones with this kind of functionality. Sigh. [Asia/Pacific, WPAN, WWAN, handsets, infrastructure, services, carriers, usage]

New Scale Debuts ‘World’s Smallest Motor’

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #184, May 31, 2006)

 The latest Squiggle motor from New Scale Technologies, Inc. is the smallest linear motor on the market, the company announced last week. At 1.5 x 1.5 x 6 mm, New Scale says the new SQL-1.5 piezoelectric motor is half the size of competing micro-motors. It also offers a 20 gram push force and sub-micron position resolution, performing ten times better than its closest competitor on both counts. The company says the SQL-1.5 is easier to manufacture and draws lower power than the liquid lens approach. It is also much further down the road to commercialization — having already been designed into next-generation auto-focus and optical zoom assemblies by leading camera module developers, who support the top tier handset manufacturers.

“The SQL-1.5 opens a whole new range of performance for miniature electronic systems such as phone cameras and medical devices,” said New Scale president David Henderson. “Designers of leading edge mobile devices finally have a precise, reliable linear motor that fits within their size and power budgets. They can add motion — and hence new capabilities — where they were unable to do so before.”

The SQL-1.5 is also of interest to medical device manufacturers for a new class of implantable drug pumps and micro-valves. The motor itself is tiny, but its high precision is what enables the most dramatic reduction in overall device size. It provides more precise valve control, which permits more concentrated medications and therefore smaller fluid reservoirs. The patented ceramic motor design [“New Scale Patents Squiggle Motor,” MIR #160, November 23, 2005] generates no magnetic fields and can be made of non-ferrous materials, making it MRI-safe and image compatible. [North America, components]

 

New Walkman Phones From Sony Ericsson

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #183, May 24, 2006) 

Sony Ericsson on Thursday announced five new mobile phones for the end-of-year holiday shopping season, including two Walkman phones. So far this year, the Japanese-Swedish joint venture has unveiled more than 20 new models. It introduced 30 models in all of last year. “We’re strengthening our position within the segments where we are strong, like the Walkman music phones,” said product manager for the Nordics region Ola Lilja Molen, adding he saw huge demand for the Walkman products of which the company now has 10 different models at various prices.

The new W710 Walkman includes a motion sensor and fitness software programs to keep track of physical exercise while listening to music from the radio or stored on the phone’s memory cards. “Consumers told us that one of the most popular times to listen to music is when exercising. We wanted to make sure consumers only need to carry one device instead of two or even three: a mobile phone, an MP3 player and a step counter,” said Steve Walker, head of product marketing. This, of course, is one of the primary advantages of incorporating more and more functionality into mobile phones: You’re going to carry your mobile anyway, so why not make it a music player and a camera and a mobile wallet as well (not to mention a pedometer, GPS device, barcode scanner, game console, TV set, etc.), so you don’t have to carry an iPod or a DSC or your wallet or a Game Boy or PMP or anything else for that matter? As these ‘secondary’ functions get better and more compact, the converged solution becomes ever more attractive.

In addition to its music functions — MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+ player, RDS FM Radio and active stereo headset — the quad-band GSM/EDGE clamshell W710 has a 2-megapixel camera with 2.5x digital zoom and video recording, a 176 x 220-pixel, 262,144-color TFT LCD main display, a 128 x 128-pixel, 4-grayscale, STN sub-display, Memory Stick Micro M2 slot including a 512 MB card and USB mass storage support, Bluetooth, Infrared, and a new pedometer sensor and fitness application. It measures 88 x 48 x 24.5 mm and weighs 101 grams.

The 3G W850 is the first slider-style Walkman model, the first with A2DP stereo Bluetooth, and has new TrackID music recognition software from Emeryville, California-based Gracenote to make it easier to navigate through thousands of songs and find names of tracks. It can also record straight from the included RDS FM radio. The W850 has a 2-megapixel camera with 4x digital zoom and flash, a second camera for 3G video calls, a 2-inch, QVGA, 262,144-color TFT LCD, Memory Stick PRO Duo with USB mass storage support, Bluetooth, and Infrared. [Europe, WPAN, WWAN, handsets]

Fluid Lens Startup Gets CIA Funding

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #182, May 17, 2006)

Rhevision Technology, Inc., a San Diego developer of miniature tunable optical systems, announced the completion of its first venture financing, led by EDF Ventures and joined by In-Q-Tel, the independent investment fund that identifies innovative technologies to support the mission of the Central Intelligence Community (CIA) and the larger Intelligence Community. The funding announcement brought the company to our attention and put them squarely on our radar screen.

“Soon, camera-phones will have image sensors comparable to the quality of digital still cameras. What’s lacking is the optical zoom and auto-focus functions due to size, weight and cost limitations,” says Rhevision’s CEO, Tim Rueth. “Our optical zoom lenses will meet these market demands and offer auto-focus and 3x optical zoom while fitting in the small form factors of new cell phone designs. Our unique and proprietary approach will prove superior to competing approaches.”

Although the company is still essentially in stealth mode, we were able to ferret out a bit of information about Rhevision’s tunable lens systems “that will revolutionize the world of mobile imaging.” (You know that phrase caught our attention.) Developed by Professor Yuhwa Lo’s group at the University of California at San Diego and then spun out into a separate company, the Rhevision approach tunes the focal length of each lens in its system by simply adjusting the fluidic pressure. The body of the lens consists of two back-to-back fluidic adaptive lens chambers that sit either side of a glass substrate. To control the pressure, the researchers use a battery-powered miniature pump coupled to fluid inlet and outlet valves integrated within the chamber. In the design, where the lens can be changed between convex and concave in shape, the team has demonstrated the integration of a telephoto system and a wide-angle system using the same set of liquid lenses.

Changing lens shape enables optical zoom by adjusting focal point ratios for magnification. This approach doesn’t require mechanical motion and is implemented as a very compact module. Key innovations include a piezoelectric microfluidic device to pump fluid through micro channels into a spherical membrane. Resulting pressure deforms the membrane to change lens shape and focal point. Specialized membrane and fluid materials are incorporated within a simple design to ensure long product life and excellent lens characteristics. The miniature camera lens is capable of up to 5x optical zoom (without changing lens distance), focal distance tuning (f#: 0.7 to >100), wide range field-of-view tuning (7 – 65 degrees), and auto-focusing.

Rhevision says its approach produces images that are crisper and consistently better than those of competing technologies such as Varioptic’s electrowetting because of its superior aperture size and ability to admit sufficient light when photos are taken. Cost is far lower than competitors (under $3), the firm says, with good manufacturability and durability. When comparing Varioptic’s and Rhevision’s systems, however, Varioptic’s research director Bruno Berge believes that Varioptic’s main advantage is the electrowetting method that is used to focus and zoom. “Rhevision’s lens is easier to manufacture than ours,” he said. “It only has one liquid chamber, but it needs a pump to function. This can be large and slow and can take a lot of battery power. Our lens is harder to manufacture, but it only needs a small voltage to function.”

And so the race is on to see which of these approaches can get the market traction necessary to shut the window of opportunity for the other. At this point, Varioptic has a considerable head start. Join us at the Mobile Imaging Summit in Monterey, October 24 to see the latest advances in optics and opto-mechanics for Mobile Imaging, and judge for yourself who has the best solution. [Europe, North America, components]

Nokia Unveils 3.2MP, 3x Optical Zoom N93

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #181, May 3, 2006)

Nokia last week took the wraps off the latest round of Nseries handsets, and the flagship N93 is loaded with multimedia goodness. The Nokia N93 features a 3.2-megapixel (2,048 x 1,536 pixels) camera with a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 3x optical zoom lens, as well as up to 20x digital zoom, auto-focus and close-up mode. The N93 also offers DVD-like video capture — MPEG4 at 30 fps with stereo audio recording and digital stabilization. You can connect the N93 directly to your TV or upload your images and video to online albums or blogs. Nokia has made a deal with Yahoo so its new camera-phones can directly upload full-size photos to the Flickr photo-sharing site. Moreover, you can create high-quality home movies and burn them to DVD with the included Adobe Premiere Elements 2.0 software (for Windows XP only, alas).

The Nokia N93 has an active camera toolbar that displays all available capture features, from exposure value to color tones and white balance. There are dedicated keys for shutter, zoom and flash and also a camera mode key that enables you to switch quickly between image and video capture. On the typical camera-phone, nearly all camera adjustments and controls are buried deep in nested menus and therefore rarely used, so we applaud these much-needed features. The phone features internal memory of up to 50 MB, which can be further expanded with a hot swappable miniSD card of up to 2 GB (a 128 MB card is included), allowing users to capture up to 90 minutes of high-quality video or close to 2,500 full resolution photos. The Nokia N93 includes a stereo FM radio and a digital music player as well as Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g) and UPnP (Universal Plug and Play), Bluetooth 2.0, and USB 2.0 via Pop-Port interface and mass storage class support to support drag and drop functionality.

The handset echoes the Rubik’s cube design of the N92, but with a couple of refinements. The camera is still mounted in the hinge, which allows plenty of room for those lovely Zeiss optics, and the big 2.4-inch, QVGA, 262,144-color, 160°-viewing angle screen still rotates in multiple directions so you can use the phone like a regular clamshell, operate the camera pistol-style like a camcorder, or set it flat on a table with the screen in landscape orientation for browsing the web, watching video like a PMP or making hands-free video calls with the CIF (352 x 288) sub-camera, but the post around which it swivels is now at the other end of the hinge — near the zoom and shutter controls instead of the camera lens. There’s also a small 1.1-inch, 128 x 36-pixel, 65,536-color sub-display. All this functionality and versatility comes at a price, of course — an estimated, unsubsidized sales price of approximately €550 euros [almost $700 at today’s exchange rates] and, in this era of ever-slimmer phones, a rather bulky 118.2 x 55.5 x 28.2-mm, 180-gram package (twice as thick and twice as heavy as the Moto Razr V3c, for example). The N93 will be commercially available in July 2006.

With all the functionality being integrated into these devices, Nokia would like us to stop calling them camera-phones, or video-phones, or MP3-phones — or even phones — and instead refer to them as “multimedia computers.” While the point is well taken — these amazing electronic gizmos have gone way past being just phones or even hyphenated phones — the term “multimedia computer” doesn’t exactly resonate either. You already have a multimedia computer — it’s the Mac or Windows XP box on your desktop — and the term conveys neither the breadth of functionality nor the intensely personal nature of today’s mobile phones. Multimedia fails to communicate uses such as information management, barcode reading, or mobile wallet functions, to name just a few, and while the processing power in your hand is rapidly approaching that of yesterday’s desktop computer, that word is too cold and dry and businesslike to describe the indispensable consumer electronic device that you’ve tricked out with your favorite ringtones, ring-back tones, wallpapers, covers, holsters, skins, Swarovski crystals, and dangly bits of cuddliness and bling. Nominations are now open for a much needed, more marketable and catchier name. Send suggestions to thenning@mobileimagingreport.com. [Europe, WPAN, WLAN, WWAN, handsets]

 

Query By Camera-Phone

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #180, April 19, 2006)

 

Microsoft is developing technology that would make it possible to take a picture of an object with a camera-phone, and then use the image to do a search of a web-based database for more information. Calling the concept “Phone2Search,” the technology is being investigated by the Web Search and Mining group within Microsoft Research Asia, according to a company blog. The technology would be an alternative to having to use the phone’s keypad to type out search queries. A user takes a photo of a real-world object and sends the photo, via e-mail or MMS, to a web-based server, which searches an image database for matches. The server then delivers database information to the user, such as detailed information about a product or tourist site, price comparisons, a menu from the restaurant, hotel room rates and availability, etc.

“This technology,” says one of the principal researchers Xing Xie, “aims to solve the problem of mapping a physical-world object to a digital-world object. You see an object in the physical world, and you want to know the corresponding information in the digital world — for example, its price on the web, user comments, or web sites. There are many different solutions. You can use a bar code or radio frequency identification. But using a picture of the object is very convenient and very easy to deploy. As the old saying goes,” Xie says, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Xie and his colleagues investigated Content Based Image Retrieval (CBIR) and existing computer-vision techniques, but found both approaches wanting. In the second half of 2005, the research team rebuilt the system, with image matching based on some well-known computer-vision algorithms that extract features from images. That choice proved productive, resulting in an efficient, high-dimensional index that can search through a large image database and return results quickly — combing through a collection of 6,000 images and delivering matches in a mere three seconds using a common laptop. The searchable database still needs to be a predefined collection of images, but they can be harvested from the web. Manual annotation and organization are then employed to enhance performance.

Given that methodology, the stated goal strikes us as a bit ambitious. A collection of 6,000 images is a drop in the bucket compared to just the volume of visual material already on the internet, which must be something like six orders of magnitude greater — how long to manually annotate and then filter through 6 billion images? — not to mention the universe of potential real-world subjects. And there are already a number of companies commercializing exactly this functionality, albeit on a much more modest scale. We covered Neven Vision and ActiveSymbols in last week’s MIR, and we’ve written about Mobot on numerous occasions as well. Still, the goal is tantalizing and having the financial and intellectual resources of Microsoft behind the project adds credibility and momentum to the concept.

In a paper entitled “Photo-to-Search: Using Camera Phones to Inquire of the Surrounding World,” to be delivered in Japan in May during the upcoming seventh International Conference on Mobile Data Management, Xie and co-authors Mingjing Li and Wei-Ying Ma, both of Microsoft Research Asia, and Menglei Jia and Xin Fan of the University of Science and Technology of China, underscore how important camera-phones could become in searching via mobile devices.

“The value of camera-phones on daily information acquisition has not been sufficiently recognized by the wireless industry and researchers,” the authors state. “With necessary technologies, they [could] become a powerful tool to acquire … information [about] the surrounding world on the go.”

We would, of course, echo that sentiment and then some — the value of camera-phones has not been recognized sufficiently or, some might say, at all, particularly here in North America. The wireless operators, who spend more on advertising than any other industry (the top seven wireless carriers spent nearly $5 billion in 2004, according to Advertising Age), continue to sell mobile phones and services as utilities, not as the incredibly sophisticated and personal lifestyle devices they are recognized as in most other markets. It’s all about buckets of minutes and network coverage and not the benefits and value of that camera you have with you all the time. The failure to deliver the message of Connected Imaging, to tell that story to consumers, is one of the prime motivations for 6Sight. Join us in Monterey, California on October 25 and help us tell that story. Check it out at http://www.6sight.com

 

XCute Seeks U.S. Distribution

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #178/179, April 12, 2006) 

By far the most interesting line-up of phones at CTIA was one we may never see on North American shelves — xcute mobile of Taiwan is looking for distribution on our shores, but the phones are probably too cool for this backward market. The company first caught our attention when it launched the DV1 in January 2005 [“3MP Camera-Phone For Taiwan,” MIR #119, January 19, 2005]. Originally released as the X-cute V8 when company was known as Yan Chuan Communication, the DV1 featured a 3MP camera mounted at the end of the hinge, a twisting 16-million color QVGA main display — so you could operate the camera camcorder-style, 22 shooting modes, and miniSD removable memory. Six months later, xcute bumped the resolution to 6MP (through interpolation), added an MP3 player with six different equalizer modes and 30fps VGA video capture and called it the DV2. That model is being released in Europe as the Grundig X5000 [Grundig 6MP Camera-Phone MIR #173, February 22, 2006]. It turns out those two models are just the tip of the iceberg.

In addition to the DV2, the company’s portfolio now includes:

·         the DV50, a slim (104 x 46 x 19-mm, 100-gram) candybar model that offers an 8MP auto-focus CMOS camera with flash, 26 shooting modes, 30fps VGA MPEG4 video capture, MP3 player, a 16-million-color 240 x 640 LTPS LCD display, and removable miniSD memory

·         the DV55, a slightly larger (109 x 47 x 19 mm, 100-gram) candybar model with an 8MP CMOS camera with flash, 26 shooting modes, 30fps VGA MPEG4 video capture, MP3 player, a 16-million-color 240 x 640 LTPS LCD display, and removable miniSD memory

·         the DV80, a compact (94 x 48 x 23-mm, 135-gram) slider model with an 8MP auto-focus CCD camera with flash, 26 shooting modes, 30fps VGA video capture, MP3 player, a 16-million-color 240 x 640 LTPS LCD display, Bluetooth and removable miniSD memory

·         the S50, an ultra-slim (105 x 50 x 9-mm, 100-gram) candybar phone with a 6MP auto-focus CMOS camera with flash, 30fps VGA video capture, MP3 player, a 16-million-color 240 x 640 LTPS LCD display, TV-out function, and removable miniSD memory

·         and the Wi5-80, a Wi-Fi GSM dual-mode handset with a twisting 6MP CMOS camera with flash, 30fps VGA video capture, MP3 player, a 16-million-color 240 x 640 LTPS LCD display, Bluetooth and removable miniSD memory

All models are tri-band (900/1800/1900) GSM phones. Despite the fact that the industry-leading resolutions — rivaled only by Samsung’s highest-end, phone-in-a-camera models — are achieved through interpolation (the 6MP CMOS cameras are built around 3MP CMOS sensors from OmniVision and the 8MP CCD cameras are based on 5MP CCDs from Sony), that is an impressive menu of multimedia handsets by any measure, probably too impressive for any of the GSM carriers in North America to offer. We cannot vouch for the quality of the phones, although many top-tier phones that carry other brands are produced in Taiwan, or for the quality of the interpolated images, but we’d love to get our hands on these rascals and take them for a test drive. Alas, it appears we’ll have to continue to settle for the mediocre 1.3MP models that make up the bulk of the camera-phones offered by U.S. carriers. We also don’t know how xcute would price the phones for this market, but the DV2 (Grundig X5000) sells for anywhere from $400 to $550 on the web. [Asia/Pacific, WPAN, WLAN, WWAN, handsets]

Citizen Photojournalism Hoax

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #177, March 29, 2006)

It’s no particular surprise that citizen journalism — and photojournalism — will inevitably produce mistakes and even hoaxes, and the respected British newspaper the Guardian has reported a particularly blatant one, at its own expense. Ian Mayes, Readers’ Editor of The Guardian and president of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen explained: “On Monday last week the Guardian published a report — accompanied by a dramatic photograph [see illustration] — of a heath fire in Dorset. The report began: ‘Canford Heath has blazed before, but rarely like this.’ In fact it has never blazed like that. The photograph showed not the fire in Dorset but a forest fire almost six years ago in Montana.

[The stunning photograph, titled Elk Bath, was taken with a digital camera on August 6, 2000, on the east fork of the Bitterroot River, Montana. The photographer was John McColgan, a fire behavior analyst from the Alaska Fire Service.]

“How did it get into the Guardian? Seeking to illustrate the story late on Sunday, with no still pictures from the fire in Dorset then available, the picture desk ‘grabbed’ a selection of images from the rolling news coverage on Sky News. The presenter said on air, while this particular image was held on the screen, ‘We have actually got some pretty dramatic pictures our viewers have sent in.’

“The Guardian report, addressing the picture, said, ‘Wild animals, silhouetted by the bright orange inferno in a photograph taken by a local resident, were left to fend for themselves.’ The wild animals in fact are elk, which, as one of my correspondents later that day put it, are rarely seen in Dorset.”

The affair has both mainstream news establishments scrambling to explain the mistake: A Sky spokesperson told Mayes, “It was one of several sent in by viewers. Once we had established it was a hoax, we pulled it immediately. We do all we can to ensure that email images sent in by viewers are genuine, but it’s inevitable that in a fast-breaking news environment such photos occasionally slip past the checks and balances we put in place.” The picture editor at the Guardian puts the blame on citizen journalism.

Mayes concludes, “I tell all this as a cautionary tale of our time. The picture editor said it points up a problem with ‘citizen’ journalism. Picture agencies, such as AP and Reuters — the Guardian too — he reminds us, have draconian rules about altering pictures or passing them off as something they are not — photographers have been sacked for that sort of thing. There are no such rules for the citizen and we do not have the reassurance the rules should bring that ‘seeing is believing.’ Sky News, the Guardian, and the news media in general, strive for veracity through vigilance. Who can you trust?”

We think the Guardian is passing the buck. Grabbing the photos from another news source without taking steps to verify their authenticity was just plain sloppy. A quick glance at the photo of wild elk and an evergreen forest — neither of which are found in Dorset, should have made the picture editor at least pause before rushing to print. This is not the first nor will it be the last instance of mismatched pictures and captions. Some will be honest mistakes, some will be relatively harmless pranks — as this one appears to be — and some will be malicious frauds, designed to intentionally mislead the public or discredit the subjects. Those in the latter category particularly will cause regrettable and perhaps irreparable damage, but we don’t think ordinary citizens have a monopoly on deception or ‘spin.’

If an information provider — TV, radio, newspaper, magazine, website, blog, or podcast — wants to keep its audience’s trust, it should be equally vigilant, equally skeptical about all its sources — official, professional, or amateur. And we think the groundswell of participatory or ‘citizen’ journalism is, on balance, a very good thing. As information consumers and now providers as well we must all learn to filter the deception from the reality. Can I get an “Amen!”? [Europe, North America, content, usage]

‘Universal’ Camera-Phone Flash

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #176, March 22, 2006)

 

 

Venice, California-based Foxden Holdings, LLC on Monday introduced Phlash, “the world’s first universal camera-phone flash” designed to provide powerful, even lighting for superior mobile phone photography. “There are 100 million camera-phones being used on today’s market, but less than one percent of all camera-phones include a built-in flash. And unfortunately, even those built-in flashes are very weak because they are often added by manufacturers as an afterthought,” said Dale Fox, director, Foxden Holdings and the inventor of the Phlash universal flash. “That’s ironic, considering most consumers use camera-phones to take quick, candid photos indoors — at restaurants, clubs, or other places with insufficient lighting.”

 

While Mr. Fox is way off the mark when it comes to the number of camera-phones in use, he is right on the mark when it comes to their flash capabilities. Better integrated solutions are on their way —supercapacitor-powered LEDs or Xenon flashes such as those found in the new Cyber-shot camera-phones from Sony Ericsson — but rather than wait, Foxden has jumped into the void with this external solution. Measuring just over an inch wide, Phlash resembles “a cute silver button” that can either be stuck to the back of a camera-phone or hung from the phone with an included strap. The company says Phlash is 12 times brighter than most built-in flashes and its replaceable lithium coin-type batteries that should last through hundreds of cycles.

 

While there’s clearly a need for better camera-phone flash, the Phlash leaves a good deal to be desired. To fire the Phlash, the user has to press the Phlash button at the same time as the shutter release or capture button on the phone. The shutter delay on most camera-phones ranges from a few milliseconds to a second or more so synchronizing the “intense pulse of light that takes the perfect picture” with the actual moment of exposure is likely to be difficult, if not downright impossible (and frustrating). To its credit, the company recognizes the issue — the number one question on the Phlash Q & A web page is: “I don’t get it. How does Phlash synchronize with my camera?” Unfortunately the answer is: “It doesn’t synch. You do! Simply squeeze Phlash and hold while you press the ‘capture’ button on your phone. That quick pulse of light not only takes the perfect picture, but also helps you see what you are shooting so you compose a better shot. Clever, eh?!” The degree of cleverness depends on how easy it is to time the exposure to catch that “quick pulse.”

 

The second problem with the Phlash is that it’s only good to one meter, which severely limits its usefulness. Most would agree that three meters (10 feet) is a more useful goal. Still, you have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit of Mr. Fox, who founded Concept Kitchen — the first company to produce accessories for handhelds and PDAs including the now ubiquitous WriteRight Screen Protector. Concept Kitchen was purchased by Fellowes Manufacturing in 2000. [North America, peripherals, usage]

 

Samsung Intros 10MP Camera-Phone

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #175, March 15, 2006)

 

 

Samsung introduced the world’s first ten-megapixel camera-phone at CeBIT last week — the SCH-B600. The new handset follows Samsung’s recent high-resolution camera-phone design strategy — a basic candybar that looks and operates like a phone on one side and looks and operates like a standard point-and-shoot digital camera on the other, including a telescoping, 3x optical zoom lens and Xenon flash. A 5x digital zoom, LED-assisted auto-focus (another camera-phone first), QVGA, 30fps, MPEG4 / H.264 video recording, 1/2,000th second shutter speed, PictBridge and MMCmicro removable media round out the imaging features. The display is a 2.2-inch, QVGA, 16-million-color, “photo-fine chromarich” TFT LCD and there’s support for Satellite Digital Multimedia Broadcasting, TV-out, MP3 player, dual speakers, document viewer, voice recognition, and Bluetooth for good measure. The SCH-B600 will be available this fall in Korea and, depending on the source, will sell for $717 (SKW 700,000), or $318, or an undisclosed price.

 

Let’s try to put this milestone in perspective: The first camera-phones to offer better than VGA resolution appeared in Japan in April 2003 when NTT DoCoMo brought the 505i series to market with four handsets that offered megapixel resolution [“DoCoMo Unveils Megapixel Camera-Phones,” WIRE #036, April 9, 2003]. Europe saw its first megapixel handset just two years ago when Vodafone announced the Sharp GX30 [“Vodafone To Offer Europe’s First Megapixel Camera-Phone,” WIRE #078, February 25, 2004], and we didn’t see our first megapixel-class camera-phone in North America until 20 months ago when Sprint introduced the Audiovox PM-8920 [“Sprint Launches First Megapixel Camera-Phone In U.S.,” MIR #094, July 7, 2004]. It’s taken less than three years to go from VGA to 10MP!

 

But what’s the point of a 10MP camera-phone? It appears to be technology leadership, pure and simple: “The Samsung 10 Megapixel camera-phone belongs to a different level with other camera phones,” said Lee Ki-tae, chief of Samsung’s mobile phone business. “Samsung was the first company to introduce a camera-phone in the world. And we will continue to bring mobile imaging products with more advanced optical technologies. We have many researchers who are specialized in optical science and they will help us catch up with famous optic technology firms such as Carl Zeiss and Schneider soon.”

 

Apparently not content with bragging rights to the world’s highest resolution camera-phones — the 7MP SCH-V770 introduced at last year’s CeBIT, the 7.7MP SCH-B500 unveiled less than two months ago, and the 8MP SPH-V8200 launched in November 2005 —the Korean handset manufacturer is now gunning for the top spot in digital cameras, with or without a phone. The Imaging Resource web site, for example, lists no currently available consumer DSCs that can match the B600’s resolution. Samsung’s own digicams max out at 8.1MP. In fact, only six of the digital cameras listed on the site offer resolution equal to or better than Samsung’s new camera-phone — five are pricey pro DSLRs (Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, 16.7MP, c. $7,000 body only; Canon EOS 5D, 12.8MP, c. $3,000 body only; Hasselblad H2D, 22.2MP, c. $25,000 with 80mm lens; Nikon D2X, 12.4MP, c. $4,000 body only; and Nikon D200, 10.2MP, c. $1,700 body only) and one is a so-called DZLR because a zoom lens is permanently attached to the SLR-like body (Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1, 10.3MP, c. $800 with 5x optical zoom lens).

 

One can easily make the point, however, that we don’t even need 10MP sensors in digital cameras and when they’re crammed into mobile phones they’re even more impractical. At 30MB each (and at least 3MB even with relatively aggressive JPEG compression), the image files produced by this phone-in-a-camera will put a strain on every resource — storage, memory, processing power, battery life, and transfer times — even after they get to a desktop PC or web site. And, although not significantly larger than other multi-function mobile phones, the telescoping optical zoom guarantees that the SCH-B600 will not survive the standard drop test. Despite these issues, however, this camera-phone from Samsung still represents a significant milestone in Mobile Imaging.

 

It’s also worth noting that Samsung can in fact lay claim to being “the first company to introduce a camera-phone in the world,” as Lee Ki-tae said. Samsung released the ‘SCH-v200 Camera Phone’ in Korea in June 2000, some five months before J-Phone (Vodafone K.K.) released the Sharp J-SH04 in Japan, but pictures taken by the VGA camera could only be transferred by data cable so the device did not immediately catch on. The Camera Phone was the fifth in Samsung’s series of multi-function hand-held phones, following the Internet Phone, MP3 Phone, Watch Phone, and TV Phone. All seemed like mere technology exercises at the time. [Asia/Pacific, WPAN, WWAN, handsets]

First Cyber-shot Camera-Phones

(Future Image MIR Weekly – Issue #174, March 8, 2006)

Sony Ericsson, which is doing quite well with its Walkman-branded music phones, is now launching its first camera-phones to carry the Cyber-shot brand. The Cyber-shot phones, said North American marketing VP Frances Britchford, are “the first to earn the right to be called Cyber-shot” and represent the initial salvo in a product plan that in 2006 will “establish the phone as a credible camera.” The K800 and K790 are 3.2-megapixel camera-phones with auto-focus, red-eye reduction, video and image stabilization, and a Xenon flash capable of illuminating “a whole scene rather than just a face” up to ten feet away. Slide the active lens cover downwards, the company says, and a user interface similar to that of a Cyber-shot camera automatically appears on the 2-inch, QVGA, 262,144-color LCD.

That’s not the end of the imaging goodies. The phones also feature a proprietary technology not available in Cyber-shot digital cameras. Called BestPic, the technology lets users capture nine sequential shots at the first touch of the shutter button, store the images in buffer memory and select the best of the lot to store in removable memory. Most digital cameras, in contrast, take sequential shots and store all of them in embedded or removable memory, requiring users to delete unwanted. Only Nikon and Casio have a BestPic-like feature in their digital cameras. The phones also have the ability to directly send your photos to a blog, thanks to Sony Ericsson’s partnership with Google. Once you’ve taken a snap, you can go to straight to a drop down menu, select ‘blog this,’ add text and then post it directly to a Blogger page. You can re-size images to keep data transfer costs under control.

The K790 Cyber-shot phone for the North American market measures 106 x 47 x 18 mm (22 mm with sliding lens cover), weighs 115 grams, and its features include tri-band 850/1800/1900MHz GSM/EDGE; 64MB internal memory; Sony Memory Stick Micro (M2) slot for the company’s new flash-memory format; Bluetooth 2.0; RDS-equipped FM radio (RDS stands for Radio Data System and it allows FM broadcasters to send data such as song titles or genre over a subcarrier); HTML browsing; RSS feeds; and support for playback of MP3, AAC, AAC+ and eAAC+ music files. It uses the Open Mobile Alliance’s digital-rights-management (DRM) technology to protect music downloaded over the air. The other new Cyber-shot phone, the K800, is slated for overseas markets and uses GSM/GPRS technology at 900/1800/1900MHz and W-CDMA at 2100MHz.

We’ve been wondering when a manufacturer or carrier would put a mainstream imaging brand on a handset to let consumers know that it could be taken seriously as a camera, and we applaud Sony Ericsson for being the first to do just that. The No. 5 handset maker has been a leader in camera-phones with its dual-front designs, QuickShare interface, and market leading image quality in handsets such as the S710a, and the Cyber-shot series continues this leadership. It’s not clear whether the image-resizing capability is available only from the blogging feature or applies to any transmission scenario, but we’re nonetheless delighted to see the feature finally incorporated into a phone destined for this market. Japanese camera-phones have been allowing users to crop, zoom, and resize images before sending for several years but to our knowledge this will be a first for the U.S. Again, kudos to SEMC for leading the way. [Europe, WPAN, WWAN, handsets]

 

  Sending Photos Phone to Phone: Challenges & Opportunities Many issues need to be resolved to encourage the adoption of mobile imaging in general and picture messaging in particular. Some have to do with the cellular networks, some have to do with mobile devices, and some have to do with the service providers - they need to simplify and reduce picture-messaging charges and they need to let us exchange pictures with anybody we want to, in particular with any other mobile phone, a capability generally referred to as Interoperability.

All are important and all are being worked on, but the issue that currently shows the least progress is the last one - interoperability. Real, seamless, and universal inter-carrier picture messaging seems to be an ever-receding goal. There have been some announcements - even in North America - but some of the arrangements don't work at all and those that do generally leave a great deal to be desired. Through interviews with carriers and infrastructure vendors, this report explores the technical and business challenges that stand in the way of interoperability. It also describes some of the alternatives and workarounds being developed to fill the gap between customer expectations and the current reality.

 

 

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