Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Instant Obsolescence

This past week was the 65th anniversary of the Polaroid Land Camera.  That news sent me scurrying around the house to see if I still own a Polaroid camera.  Apparently I don't, although there have been several in my past.  My favorite was the Polaroid Captiva which, rather than ejecting the exposed pictures out of the camera, slid them into a compartment on the back of the camera where, via the clear back panel, you could view them without removing them from the camera.  The camera was manufactured through 1997, and I imagine someone at Polaroid thinking that the in-camera viewing trick was cool because it was like looking at the screen on the back of a digital camera.

Although my Captiva has gone the way of all things, I did find this in the back of a desk drawer:

The Polaroid PoGo, a wireless, battery powered, bluetooth, portable printer.  It makes tiny 2 inch by 3 inch prints (you can peel off the backing paper, and they become stickers) and requires no ink due to dye crystals embedded in the paper which are activated by a laser in the printer.  Lasers.  Sweet.

You can actually still buy this thing but let's face it, it hasn't taken the world by storm.  Sure, it has its flaws.  The battery life is good for a chuckle.  And the print quality won't take your breath away, or at least not in a good way.  But really, who cares?  It's a tiny, portable printer, what do you expect?  The PoGo failed not because of flaws in design or execution (or even due to its stupid name), but because we simply don't care.

It seemed like a brilliant idea to me and I bought one the second it came out.  It seemed brilliant to me not because I thought we all need printers in our pockets, but because it was easy for me to imagine a future in which we said, "Remember when we use to have to put ink in our printers?  What a pain in the ass that was."  Instead, we have a future in which we say, "Remember printers?"

The primary benefits of the original Land Camera, the already-ancient PoGo, and the Polaroid company itself, were instant gratification and immediate dissemination.  As such, the reasons for their irrelevance today are too obvious to belabor.  A world in which we all have tiny computers in our pocket which can not only connect to vast, world-wide databases of information from essentially anywhere, but can take pictures to boot may be a strange world, but it's a clear and direct descendant of the world in which Land's daughter, perhaps apocryphally, asked him, "Why can't I see it now?"  The human urge which created Polaroid in the first place virtually assured its eventual obsolescence.

And yet.  Shouldn't any world we make have room for the quirky and beautiful and delightfully outmoded?  For the fascinatingly useless?  For an attention to arcana so focused and obsessive we can't help but feel a bit of gleeful amazement?  The answer, apparently, is yes, yes, and yes.

Clicking "Play" is like asking me to steal 49 seconds of your life.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dycam Model 1

It seems appropriate that the first article on this site should be about the first digital camera.  As with most things, it's possible to nit-pick here.  Ideas for things that sound a lot like digital cameras were patented as early as 1968.  The first digital camera that was actually built was made by Steven Sasson at Eastman Kodak (oh, how the mighty have fallen) in 1975.  It was not commercially produced.  In 1986 Canon released the RC-701, though it was not a digital camera, it was an analog electronic camera.  In 1988 Fuji built the DS-1P, which was a true digital camera, but most sources seem to agree that it was never sold.  Which brings us to 1990, and the Dycam Model 1: the first true, commercially available digital camera.  There's something else special about the Dycam Model 1: I own one.

The Dycam Model 1

My particular camera was presumably manufactured in 1991 or later, since a label on the back of the camera says, "Processor code and printed circuit copyright Dycam, 1990, 1991."  The serial number of my camera is 1079.

The camera was also marketed under the name Logitech FotoMan, but the Dycam had several advantages.  First, "Dycam Model 1" is a much cooler name than "Logitech FotoMan".  Second, the Dycam was black, whereas the Logitech was white and turquoise.

Let's talk specs:

  • 320x240 resolution (later upgraded to 376x284).  In contemporary terms, that's 0.077 megapixels.
  • Black and white (specifically, 8 bit grayscale, in other words, 256 shades of gray).
  • Optical viewfinder only.
  • Can store 32 photos (as TIFF or PICT) on its internal memory.  Sources on the internet report the size of the internal memory variously as either 1 MB or 4 MB.  The label on the back of my camera says, "Memory: 7,497,984 bits" which according to my calculations is 0.89 MB (7,497,984 divided by 8, divided by 1024, divided by 1024).
  • Shutter speed from 1/30 to 1/1000 of a second (1/25 when using the built in flash).
  • Fixed focus f/4.5 lens,  with an 8mm focal length, roughly equivalent to 55mm on a 35mm camera.
  • ISO 200.  The ISO is not variable, and the camera originally shipped with a neutral density filter.

There are a few rather charming things you should know about this camera.  First, it has just one button: the shutter release.  That's it.  No power switch.  And, though the camera has a flash, no button for turning the flash on and off.  Instead, the flash needs to be activated (or deactivated) via the desktop software.  Want the flash on?  Plug the camera into your computer, launch the software, activate the flash, unplug camera, go take your picture.  Want the flash off again?  Back to the computer...  Second, although the first commercial flash memory chips were introduced in 1988, the camera uses volatile memory.  This means that if the camera battery dies, your pictures disappear.  When new, the battery was good for roughly 24 hours.  And lastly: the original 1990 list price was $995 (roughly $1775 in 2012 dollars).

I did not get this camera in 1990, I got mine in 2008 from a guy in Canada, via an online classified ad.  And although I probably paid more for it than you would, I didn't pay anywhere near $995.  In the four years since, I have never seen another one for sale, not even on eBay.

That's a lot of bits.  Wait... no it's not.

I'd love to show you some sample photos, but I can't.  The camera does seem to work, that's not the problem.  The battery doesn't hold a charge of course, but if I plug the camera in to a wall outlet and press the shutter release button it makes an electronic, simulated shutter click noise, and then a few seconds later, it beeps to indicate that the photo has been saved.  Sadly, I have no way to get the photo off the camera.  I have the original connecting cable.  And I have access to plenty of old computers.  What I lack is the necessary desktop software.

There is actually a Dycam website, it looks as if it was perhaps last updated circa 1998.  But there's a phone number, so I called.  A friendly man named John answered the phone.  Dycam, the company, apparently no longer exists as such, but John thought he might be able to dig up some old software for me, and suggested that I email him, which I did.  A month later, when I hadn't heard anything, I emailed him again.  Nada.

Much of the information in this article was culled from other sites.  In particular, I enjoyed John Henshall's review of the camera, which first appeared in "The Photographer" magazine in 1993.  Mr. Henshall's review includes some now quaint-sounding assertions such as "Be warned, you will soon fill up your hard disc with a multitude of 100 kilobyte images if you are not totally ruthless about what you keep."  But quaint or no, his general assessment (which I paraphrase as "Sure, the Model 1 may suck, but clearly this is the future") was of course spot-on.

Have a Dycam Model 1, or Logitech Fotoman yourself?  Have any tips about where to get the software?  Let me know in the comments below.