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Living with Photography: S-M-R-T Smart Cameras

By Norman Chan

Some thoughts on what digital cameras should adopt from smartphones, and whether Android is a good fit as camera software.

I'm at CES this week, and one of the things being at the biggest consumer electronics show in North America affords me is access not only to just-announced products and technology, but also plenty of interesting devices that may have already been released. On the photography front, one trend that's emerging is the smartification of digital cameras. That could be incorporating features like Wi-Fi and touchscreens, a proprietary app ecosystem, or even cameras that run Android. Essentially, camera makers are taking the usability lessons learned from smartphones and applying them to digital cameras. And so far, I don't think they've been doing a great job. At best, the smart integration I've seen seems shoehorned and just inelegant. Let's examine two case studies.

Samsung's Galaxy Camera, which I used for the first time at CES, looks like a big Android phone with a point-and-shoot camera lens stuck to the back of it. And in the places where it matters--sensor size and physical controls--this is essentially a point-and-shoot. It takes photos with a 16MP 1/2.3" CMOS sensor, which means photos aren't going to be nearly as nice as ones taken with a compact interchangeable lens camera in the Micro 4/3rds or even 1" sensor systems. That says to me that this camera isn't aimed at enthusiasts, but made for casual photographers.

And if this is a camera for casual shooters, I'm not sure why Samsung chose to put a full Android OS on the device. If you turn the Galaxy Camera on and just look at its rear LCD, it looks just like a small Android phone. There's a dedicated camera icon on the bottom left of the camera to bump you in to photo-taking mode, but it feels more like a phone running a camera app than a camera with a powerful OS in the background. The touch interface to change settings and switch between shooting modes also was inelegant--I kept accidentally tapping the LCD to change focus and auto-snap a photo when trying to hit the menu buttons on the right side of the screen. This is not a camera for me.

Polaroid actually announced an Android-based camera at CES last year, but its interface was so slow when I tried it on the show floor that it didn't even merit a hands-on preview. This year, Polaroid announced a different Android camera--one actually made but camera maker Sakar and rebranded Polaroid. Like Samsung's Galaxy Camera, the Android interface is surfaced as the primary UI, but Sakar/Polaroid is going one step further and making it an interchangeable lens/sensor system.

Our video preview of the Polaroid camera will explain more about its unique lensing system, but in terms of its interface, Polaroid reps told me that it was a very conscious decision to make the Android OS front and center for users. They admit wholeheartedly that their $350 camera is made for casual photographers and not pro shooters, and their rationale is that they want to present those point-and-shoot users with an interface they're familiar with, which in this case is Android OS. But familiarity and appropriateness are two different things, and just because Android is something that many people are comfortable using--in the context shooting photos on phones and tablets--doesn't mean it's the most practical or efficient interface for a camera with a touchscreen.

If you're going to use Android as the basis of your camera's operating system (and camera OS's aren't something people even have to think about these days), I want that to be hidden. Unlike on smartphones, cameras are one case where heavily specialized custom skins and interfaces actually benefit the user--a pure Android experience is wholly unnecessary. Polaroid doesn't seem to get that at all, and Samsung isn't doing enough with its custom interface. Seriously, let's TouchWiz these cameras up, and then some.

My ideal smart camera interface is somewhere along the lines of what Sony's doing with its NEX-5R camera. It has a touchscreen for tap-to-focus. It has Wi-Fi built in for smart functionality like wireless uploads and remote viewfinding. But even Sony is doing it wrong. Its cameras require a proprietary companion app--PlayMemories--to access wireless features, when I would rather have it just work like an Eye-Fi or PhotoStream and upload to a major cloud storage service. And charging between $2 and $10 for those PlayMemories apps for automated features like time-lapse and cinemagraphs is just asinine. That's one lesson from smartphones that I don't think needs to adopted by cameras--or at least not in a closed app ecosystem.

It saddens me to see camera makers do what TV and appliance manufacturers have been doing with their smart TVs and refrigerators. Bootstrapping something that works well with one kind of consumer technology onto another is not innovation. It's lazy. Camera makers will have to do better and I'm confident that they eventually will because the opportunity is real and its right in front of them. Samsung, Sony, Canon, and Nikon just have to reach out and grasp them.

More thoughts on camera stuff from CES next week. Also, let me know if there are any camera products or technologies you've read about coming out of this year's CES, and I'll do my best to track them down on the show floor to find out more.

(And just because I'm out of the office this week doesn't mean I can't share a recent favorite photo of mine. Here's a shot taken from a recent video shoot, only edited with minor rotation and cropping.)