Kodak Makes New Plans to 'Redevelop' Consumer Photo Market

Throughout the entire consumer digital photography revolution that has reinvigorated even the market for PCs, the two biggest names in consumer photography during the 1980s - Kodak and Polaroid - have been largely out of the loop. Now Kodak has unveiled a new technology which could put it back in the fight, the old-fashioned way: by making better photographs, just like it used to do.

This morning, Kodak confirmed the readiness of a technology with multiple patents apparently attached, that will add a panchromatic element to the single image sensors mass-produced for digital cameras. Such cameras typically use charge-coupled detectors (CCDs) that feature a trio of sensors for red, green, and blue channels.

By adding this fourth element, which is sensitive to the intensity of light at all frequencies, cameras can interpret a luminance channel that attributes intensity directly to frequency, without image processors having to interpolate that channel mathematically.

The summary description paragraph from one of Kodak's patents on this technology explains the situation surprisingly well: "These image sensing devices have a very limited dynamic range when compared to traditional negative film products," it reads. "A typical image sensing device has a dynamic range of about 5 stops. This means that the exposure for a typical scene must be determined with a fair amount of accuracy in order to avoid clipping the signal. In addition, oftentimes the scene has a very wide dynamic range as a result of multiple illuminants (e.g. frontlit and backlit portions of a scene). In the case of a wide dynamic range scene, choosing an appropriate exposure for the subject often necessitates clipping data in another part of the image. Thus, the inferior dynamic range of an image sensing device relative to silver halide media results in lower image quality for images obtained by an image sensing device."

An example of this low-quality result, compared to the improved quality of the panchromatic sensor result, appears in a prepared Q&A presented today in the online photography magazine Adorama. There, Kodak senior engineer John Compton and Kodak researcher John Hamilton explained how companies today use Kodak's so-called "Bayer Pattern" (named for one of its scientists) to interpret red, green, and blue channels separately...but in such a way that, historically, green tends to lose out. Some compensation methods have helped green to make a comeback in recent years, but perhaps you've noticed, it's still an imperfect science when reproducing the true color of plants and leaves.

A much bigger problem, the team explains, is in reproducing a realistic-looking dynamic range, for lighting situations where even the on-board flash is inadequate. (I face this problem myself at every Microsoft conference, taking photos of speakers at sessions in low light, situated in front of black curtains.) Although panchromatic CCDs are nothing new to digital photography, their use in single image sensors and their specific arrangement in the CCD array are what constitute the breakthrough.

As a result, the company claims, newer image sensors will be two to four times more sensitive to light than current CCD arrays, reducing the need for flash in some moderately-lit situations.

Last April, Kodak announced the introduction of new panchromatic arrays for use in high-resolution, professional digital cameras, which the company will produce for itself. As for today's more consumer-oriented advance, it isn't clear yet whether Kodak will reserve the rewards for itself - as it used to do during the era of its epic battle with Polaroid - or license the technology to other manufacturers, which could provide Kodak with some much-needed short-term revenue.

But apparently Kodak has broader designs for its own digital cameras. A check this afternoon of the US patent database reveals that, just two days ago, the company was granted a patent for a system which enables digital cameras to connect via wireless network to image processing stations, and for memory units within those cameras to utilize file systems that can be safely queried by those remote stations, to retrieve photos from cameras and begin developing them for customers.

The patent also appears to describe how customers can order cameras using a direct sales model, specifically similar to Dell's, letting them customize their camera with "buildouts" while at the same time purchasing subscriptions to Kodak's photo processing service. This doesn't look to us to be a technology Kodak's planning to license to anyone else in the near future.

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