When DCR site editor Allison Johnson emailed asking if I could cover the 6Sight Future Of Imaging Conference in San Jose, CA, my immediate reaction was "Sure." My next question was, "What is 6Sight?"
The 6Sight conference was founded in 2006 by Alexis Gerard and Joe Byrd, president and vice-president, respectively, of Future Imaging, an independent center of expertise on imaging technology. Prior to launching 6Sight, the two had held five Mobile Imaging summit conferences from 2002-2005, but the focus has remained the same: "...the convergence of factors shaping ‘pictures as personal expression' as one of the best growth opportunities in imaging today - and on the transformative impact of imaging technology and visual communication on every facet of society: businesses, homes, and communities."
The conferences generally bring together a relatively small group of 200 to 300 persons, with the attendees tending to fall into the senior imaging execs, OEMs, component manufacturers, software developers, pro lab owners, media, analysts, and mass merchant buyers and investors groups. This year's conference numbered about 160, and included representatives from companies such as Apple, the Association of California Water Agencies, Canon U.S.A., Carnival Cruise Lines, the Department of Defense, DxO Labs, Dolby, Eastman Kodak, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Nokia, NVIDIA, Panasonic, Pictage Inc., Photobucket, Samsung, Sony Ericcson and Verizon Wireless. The list is not all-inclusive, but gives you an idea of the scope of this meeting. Feeling a bit like Daniel heading into an electronic lion's den, all that was left was for me to figure out the way to San Jose.
6Sight blocked out their conference over two days and into four major segments: photo capture, photo publishing, mobile imaging and social imaging. The photo capture segment led off the first morning and featured a panel consisting of Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Vincent Laforet; Jeffrey Witkop of Eastman Kodak; Darin Pepple of Panasonic and Kartik Venkataraman of Pelican Imaging, a San Francisco Bay-area startup company. If anyone at the conference was expecting a black-and-white roadmap of the course of digital imaging in the near future, they were not to find it here. The panel restricted themselves to measured evaluations of where the process seems to be heading, avoiding any specific declarations of fact.
Sensors, 3D and miniature lenses
After a general review of recent digital camera introductions by the major companies, the panel moved on to their opinions as to the future. One area of general agreement was that the pixel race seems to be slowing, with 14 megapixel sensors being the new "standard." Backside illuminated sensors, once resolution limited and expensive to produce, have become more reasonably priced, gained resolution, and will probably become more common. HD video will become even more widespread, the 3.0 inch monitor is now essentially another industry standard, and 3D is coming on strong. With regard to 3D, Panasonic's Pepple pointed out that 3D imaging is viable with an offset of as little as 1 centimeter between the lenses used to capture the images; the human eye does not see in 3D at distances over one mile, which simplifies the capture process somewhat.
On the image quality front, there was a consensus that sensor performance is generally fairly good; Pepple felt that processing technology was an area of promise for the future while Witkop stressed improvements in optics as part of the mix. Laforet said that software has become an indispensible asset to maximize image quality.
We can expect the introduction of smaller, more compact cameras offering large sensors for improved image quality to continue. Panasonic's Pepple showed a 25mm lens produced for a 4/3 system camera alongside a 25mm for a micro 4/3 camera - with the latter being significantly smaller. But the most intriguing lens was the one he didn't show - Pepple said "If you think the micro 4/3 lens is small, you haven't seen anything yet - there's stuff in the pipeline that's amazing."
Camera goes social
The impact of smartphones was not lost in the digital camera discussion. Currently about 31% of all cell phones in the United States are smartphones, a figure that is expected to rise to the mid 40% range in the next few years. One major advantage of the smartphones is the instant connectivity aspect - the ability to take a photo and share it immediately - along with the fact that they are easily portable.
What's the best camera? The one you have with you... We'll explore the smartphone phenomena in more depth in another article highlighting the mobile imaging segment of the conference, but suffice it to say, when you talk digital imaging, both cameras and camera phones inevitably figure into the conversation.
Kodak's Witkop said his company has an "android camera" that has not been released - a Kodak affiliate did a limited release in Asia that was less than successful. All agreed that improved connectivity for cameras would be a plus, but both Witkop and Panasonic's Pepple expressed concern that their companies needed to take care to not turn their cameras into "phones."
There was a division of opinion on the most important consideration for a digital camera: image quality or ease-of-use. Kodak reported their customers complain most often about image quality under difficult conditions - low light or backlight. Laforet favored improved "socialability" - the ability to share photos quickly - and also advocated for more touchscreen operations on digitals. "Kill the buttons" was his battle cry, which was somewhat interesting since his focus has shifted dramatically from still image work to video, as we'll see in an accompanying article. Panasonic straddled the fence, saying their customers favor a balance in ease-of-use with an SLR-like experience. Pelican's Venkataraman felt that if image quality was good, owners would learn to use the camera if the learning bar was not too high.
Overall, Canon, Nikon and Sony are projected to gather the lion's share of the digital camera market in the near and more distant future - something on the order of 75 to 80%. The rest will be divided amongst everyone else with no company reaching a double-digit share.
Technology marches on
As was to be expected, there was no dramatic revelation or product announcement at 6Sight - that's more the purview of trade shows like the annual Consumer Electronics Show. Pepple came closest to letting a cat out of the bag with his reference to even smaller lenses in "the pipeline," but even that was guarded to the point of being interesting yet vague at the same time. The 6Sight conference suggests we not expect any golden bullet to suddenly appear and revolutionize digital imaging any time soon, but that the inexorable creep of technology still holds promise for improvement as digital imaging marches on.