Round Up: Photokina Dreamin’

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It’s that time again. With summer in full swing, it’s time to cast a forward-looking eye to fall, and in the photo world that only means one thing: Photokina.


Held every other year in Cologne, Germany, Photokina is almost certainly the premier trade show for camera manufacturers and other imaging companies. It’s a chance for the giants of the industry to strut their stuff and flex their technological muscle, but equally, it’s an opportunity for big innovations from smaller outfits to get noticed as well.

In many ways, think of Photokina as analogous to the headline international auto shows, with lots of amazing concept technology on display. The difference between most auto shows, where the majority of these concepts never make it to production, and Photokina is that most of the stuff we’ll be playing with in Cologne this September will sooner or later make it to store shelves.

So what cutting-edge technologies will come out of Photokina 2008 to change the picture-taking world? If 2006 was any indication, we should begin seeing some preliminary product announcements within the next month – though the shape that these announcements will take remains veiled in mystery. Still, I have a few hunches of my own about what’s behind these veils this year.

What follows are my predictions for what’s coming down the road at Photokina.

Megapixels matter – again

We’ve been in a “cooling off” period where compact camera sensor resolution is concerned for a little over a year now. Questions of who really needs (or even wants) more resolution than the current range of 12 and 13 megapixel compacts offer aside, it seems likely that noise reduction and sensor design technologies have improved to the point that several manufacturers will feel comfortable pushing the envelope on resolution.

Given the kind of jumps we’ve seen in the past, look for 14 to be the new 12 where megapixels are concerned. My money’s also on at least one 15 megapixel compact; although I have no credible information to this effect, with in-house sensor development and the current resolution leader at 13 megapixels, Sony seems to be one likely candidate to make this happen.

FluidFocus makes a splash

There’s been some motion in the implementation of Philips’s fascinating oil-and-water lens concept, which looks to revolutionize small optics by making them cheaply and with no moving parts. We’re still waiting for the mass adoption of this technology that many may have expected to come sooner, however.

To this end, I’m betting that we’ll see more on this concept, and related technologies, in the future tech that manufacturers will be showing off this year. While it looks like the system isn’t quite ready for dedicated compact camera use just yet, the promise of easier and cheaper undoubtedly has several makers exploring what can be done here.

Multifunction devices gain no ground

I’m going against the tide of accepted thinking on this one: my bet is that we won’t see significant increases in the number of multifunction devices (camera/MP3 player, etc.) coming from the major compact camera players this year, in spite of all evidence to the contrary at CES and PMA. The reason? Better cell-phone cameras.

Whereas a few years ago, when device-integrated cameras were still a complete joke, the idea of building a multifunction device off of the basic framework of a compact camera made sense, rapid improvements in cell-phone cameras have largely headed this idea off in my view. Not only will the latest generation of featurephones take better photos than ever, but the integration with data plans makes them the logical choice for hosting music, videos, and the like – something cameras have always done uncomfortably at best.

With many of the companies that have traditionally been interested in multifunction devices built on camera platforms also working in the phone business (Sony, Samsung), I’m betting that the time has come for a turn-around in this segment.

Leaving the Four-Thirds fold?

Finally, this one’s a long odds bet for sure, but almost invariably there will be at least one completely blindsiding piece of news coming out of Photokina. My shot-in-the-dark pick for this year would be that Panasonic decides to head in a different direction in its DSLR line.

In spite of good ground gaining elsewhere in the digicam market – its compacts have become some of the most popular around – and a great optics arrangement with Leica, Panasonic is only getting a sliver of the DSLR pie at the moment. Blame slightly expensive kit setups and underwhelming performance in part from the Four-Thirds sensor format they opted to use in conjunction with Leica and Olympus. Olympus, by contrast, has made a lot of traction with Four-Thirds, largely on the strength of their great lenses, but compatibility issues (wasn’t seamless interchangeability the flagship promise of the Four-Thirds system?) and few offerings have left Panasonic out in the cold on this one.

It’s been a comparative eternity for this market since we’ve seen anything new on the DSLR front from Panasonic, which makes it that much more likely that Photokina will be the company’s opportunity to either jump in to DSLR full-force, or pull out altogether. Given the way things are going with this segment, I think it’s highly unlikely that they’ll back away from DSLR development.

The solid bet, then, seems to be that we’ll see a host of new things from Panasonic in this area. More speculative money might even be put on the idea that in overhauling its line, Panasonic will move to a traditional APS-C sensor in an effort to make a bigger splash in a market that still (unfairly, might I add) looks somewhat unfavorably on Four-Thirds as a concept. Although this seems pretty unlikely – talk about a customer service nightmare! – stranger things have happened at Photokina.

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