Lens in One Hand, Camera Phone in the Other

Earlier this week, Sony introduced a very different way to think about your cell phone as a portable camera. The DSC-QX100 is the kind of innovative product that engineers love, and marketers don’t love because it is, well, kind of hard to explain, understand, and justify in terms that makes sense to consumers.

Basically, Sony’s engineers have, quite reasonably, identified the tiny lens as the weakest part of the idea of an in-camera phone. The phone must be small, and the lens wants to be as large as possible (to allow more light to reach the sensor, allowing better image quality and greater control over depth-of-field, and more). Sony’s solution: a full-size lens that works with any smartphone.

“Works with” is the key phrase here. You can physically connect the lens with the phone so that the whole rig resembles a traditional compact camera, as below.

Sony-Cyber-shot-QX100-Premium-“Lens-style-Camera”-4-1024x768

Here, the phone’s screen becomes the camera’s viewfinder–essentially, this is the way any camera phone works, except here, there is a full-sized Zeiss lens attached. Again, I’m choosing words carefully. The lens is attached, but not connected to the camera in the traditional way. The sensor is inside the lens, and so is the memory card. The camera is used ONLY as a viewfinder.

And that introduces an interesting variation on the theme. The phone can be held in one hand, and the lens in the other.

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In fact, there are two different models. The better one, the QX-100, contains a healthy 20 megapixel 1-inch sensor, a fast f/1.8 lens, and costs about $500. The lesser one, the QX-10, contains a lesser 2/3 of an inch sensor and offers an ordinary lens, less well-suited to low-light, and costs half as much.

How does the signal make its way from the lens to the phone? NFC if the phone offers that type of (newer) connectivity. If not NFC, then Wi-Fi (thank goodness it’s not Bluetooth).

How’s the image quality? Think in terms of the image quality that you could buy for about $600 in a compact digital camera, and that’s the QX-100. For the lesser lens/camera (or whatever these contraptions are called), think in terms of what you could buy at Best Buy for two or three hundred dollars.

So now that we both understand how these new devices work, the obvious question re-enters the room. Is this a good idea? Basically, you’re buying a lens with a built-in sensor and a slot for a memory card, but no way to actually see what you’re shooting unless you connect the thing to a smartphone. Seems kinda goofy to me, but under some circumstances, for the right people who, for reasons that are still unclear, cannot, will not or should not purchase a traditional compact digital camera.

How the heck did the marketing people get talked into this one?

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4K TV – Sooner Than You Think!

A few days ago, I was on the phone with the FCC and an interesting question came up. Will broadcast stations have enough over-the-air bandwidth to provide 4K service to the public? I was struck by the question because 4K is such a new idea, and because I’d never really thought about it as broadcast idea.

Compare 1080 pixels (dark green0 with 4000 pixels (red) and you get a sense of how much more picture information (resolution, detail) is available on the new 4K TV sets.

Compare 1080 pixels (dark green0 with 4000 pixels (red) and you get a sense of how much more picture information (resolution, detail) is available on the new 4K TV sets.

What’s 4K TV? It’s a much higher-resolution version of HDTV. And the first 4K TV sets are arriving soon (see below0. In order to provide all of that picture information, more data is required, which means larger storage devices, and, in order to provide that data to connected TV sets, more bandwidth is required, too. That’s the basic theory, but it’s important not to think about 4K in terms of the current systems because of that always-astonishing digital magic trick: compression. Yes, 4K requires a lot of data and a lot of bandwidth. But “a lot” is a relative term. And yes, there are new digital broadcast standards on the way. Good news for consumers and for broadcasters, who will be able to pack more and prettier program material into their TV signals, not-so-good news for broadcasters who are attempting to build a coherent strategy related to the upcoming FCC TV spectrum auction, in which many stations will trade their licenses for cash, or for the opportunity to share a channel with another broadcaster in the market.

panel2_imageAnyway… I woke up this morning to an announcement from Sony… with all sorts of enticing promises: improved detail, improved color rendition, better audio, screen mirroring so what’s on your tablet can be viewed on your new TV (albeit it in lesser detail, a service currently available to Apple users).

How much? $5,000 for the 55-inch model, and $7,000 for the 65-inch model.

What are you going to watch? Well, yeah, that’s always the problem at this stage. Here’s a terrific article about “upscaling” the currently available media, which seems to require 24x improvement. More data will require more robust local storage, and so, we move closer to a complete convergence of television, home network, home digital storage devices in sophisticated home library systems, and, perhaps far more likely, streaming solutions in their next phase: advanced versions of Netflix, Hulu, and so forth, tweaked to serve big files for 4K TV sets.

Which brings us back around to the TV station wondering about its 4K future. Sure, it’s technically possible to broadcast 4K, but in the few years remaining for the current broadcast standard, this seems fairly unlikely because (a) it will be expensive for television stations to install in their master control facilities, and (b) relatively few people will leap from their new-ish HDTVs to 4K sets in the next year or two.

Sony-4KTVDo we want or need even more resolution than 1080i HDTV sets provide? Maybe for microscopy or astrophotography or other science work that demands the highest possible resolution. Do I think ESPN is investing in a whole new 4K operation–cameras, video switcher, storage, transmission, etc. so I can watch baseball in even higher resolution. You know they are, or will soon be, doing just that. And when they do, we’ll buy the sets because, you know, people will come…

Best in Class

I guess I ought to begin with the obvious question: what is common thread that connects Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Adele, and Beyoncé?

The answer is Columbia Records. Founded in 1888, it’s probably the oldest record label. Along with sister labels Epic, Okeh, and a few others–set the standard for the U.S. recording industry for half of the 20th century. This story, now in book form by Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz, is, well, epic. The book is called 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story (the term “360 Sound” refers to a tagline associated with Columbia’s stereo LPs).

220px-BertWilliamsPhotoPortraitWithCigarette

“(I Ain’t Got) Nobody” was one of the many songs that made Bert Williams famous. He was among the first non-white stars in the United States.

After some novelty acts, Columbia establishes a firm footing with vaudeville superstar Al Jolson; the great singer and comedian who later starred in the Ziegfield Follies, Bert Williams, and one of the fathers of country music, Emmett Miller. A short time later, John Philip Sousa joined the label (at the time, his full band could not be recorded due to early microphones, so the sound was thinner than it was in live performances). Add W.C. Handy, and an equally impressive range of classical performers.

Columbia became a major force in “race records,” recognizing, early on, White consumer interest in Black performers. From this era came Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and artists that those familiar with the genres continue to buy: Blind Willie Johnson, for example. There was country (and western) music, too: Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff. Next came jazz pianist Art Tatum, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie. And Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby. And gospel music: The Golden Gate Quartet, Mahalia Jackson. And that’s all before the organization really found its way.

(As I said, this is an astonishing story. It’s wave after wave of the superb artists in every genre, all working, at one time or another, for the same label, or cluster of labels.)

So here comes the 1950s with Tony Bennett, Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Glenn Gould, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney… and almost no rock n’ roll. Mitch Miller–a company executive and in his own right, a very popular recording artist as a leader of a singing group–was against the whole idea. Still, they were strong in every other genre–classical in particular, and jazz. It was here that Miles Davis recorded most of his best work, with Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, and so many others. Unfortunately, although quite classy, there wasn’t much profit in classical, jazz or (most) Broadway recordings. Country was better: Flatt and Scruggs, Lefty Frizell, The Stanley Brothers, and eventually, Johnny Cash.

Along the way, there’s some tasty back-and-forth between Columbia and its long-time arch-rival (in just about every musical category), RCA Victor (which, in its golden age, was owned by RCA, which owned NBC to Columbia’s CBS). The two companies do their best to mess with the other, stealing artists, introducing competing record formats (the LP came from Columbia and the 45 came from RCA).

For a while longer, they stick with easy choices, and steer clear of the growing revolution: they sign Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis (who sells an insane number of records), and Robert Goulet.

Columbia RecordsAnd then, it happens. They sign Bob Dylan. Everything begins to change. Simon & Garfunkel come next. Suddenly, the cool jazz label, the reliable country label, the powerhouse classical label, becomes the unbelievably great rock label. The Byrds are covering Dylan songs and selling lots of Byrds and Dylan records. Donovan is signed to Epic, and debuts with a hit (“Sunshine Superman”). There’s a new executive in charge (much of the whole story is told through the eras of individual executives). His name is Clive Davis, and now, Columbia is the place to hear Janis Joplin and Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Leonard Cohen, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Chicago. They sign Earth Wind and Fire; Johnny Cash records an album at Folsom Prison; Monk and Miles are selling lots of jazz, with Miles into fusion, and appealing to rock audiences. And then, by the mid-1970s, there’s another wave of newcomers: Billy Joel, Aerosmith, and Bruce Springsteen. A great story is becoming better and better.

And then, another wave, this time bringing Willie Nelson to the company and making him a star. The jazz story continues to heat up with Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, and a newcomer from the young lions of jazz, Wynton Marsalis. On the classical side, Yo-Yo Ma is becoming a star.

All of this is one company, basically one record label. Of course, the story continues through hip-hop, Ricky Martin, an aging Bob Dylan, Michael Bolton and Lauryn Hill, Destiny’s Child and John Mayer. Chris Botti and Joshua Bell.

Yes, they’ve been bought and sold, multiple times (now owned by Sony). For me, the best part of the journey (oh yes, Journey was one of theirs, too), the best part of this coffee table book, is the era that picks up in the early 1950s and winds down about twenty years later. That’s when CBS was a very special place, in part because Columbia was just about the coolest record label around. It’s a good story, fun because of the memories, remarkable because of the achievement. And, I think, the best way to experience the era is on the vinyl records that Columbia invented, most of them now available, used, for about $5 at just about any good used record store.

columbia labels

So, I’ve been thinking about other labels with equally rich histories. The Warner Music Group includes Atlantic, Elektra, Nonesuch, and Warner Bros. Records. Historically, Atlantic’s strengths have been R&B and rock; Elektra’s have been folk and rock; Nonesuch has evolved into something like a (smaller) modern day Columbia Records with interesting artists, Broadway, classical, and international; Warner Bros. is, more or less, a popular music label. The crazy history of the labels that became Sony Music now encompasses Columbia’s long-time competitor RCA (Victor) as well as the Columbia labels; in just about every category, from Broadway to classical to country, RCA and Columbia were head-to-head, and although I want to write that Columbia did it just that much better on the rock and pop side, I’m reminded of the Jefferson Airplane (less so, the Starship), John Denver and others from the heyday (none were Dylan or Miles Davis–so maybe Columbia did do it better). In classical music, the labels now assembled under the current Decca Label Group, now part of Universal, include London/Decca and Deutsche Grammophon, but neither attempted the breadth of genres associated with Columbia. Similarly, the likes of Verve, A&M, and other Universal labels, lacked the grand ambition (and, probably, the monies available from CBS). EMI’s story is more complicated, and although its U.S. division, Capitol Records, released many pop and rock records, and some Broadway, it never established the breadth of material available from Columbia.

So, in terms of wide-ranging, deep-repetoire, and long history, it’s Columbia Records and its best competitor, RCA (Victor), but I urge you to have a look at all that Nonesuch has done, too.

Next-Generation Camcorder

Just when you thought you’d need only your cell phone to shoot video, Sony introduces two new ideas that may change the game a bit: a gyro-stablized lens and a built-in projector. Have a look at the new, remarkably small Sony HXR-NX30, a $2,000 camcorder just arrived from the future.

Weighing about two pounds and stretching to a foot with battery attached, this small HD camcorder solves a constant problem for journalists and other hand-held videographers: the gyro system is, essentially, a built-in Steadycam-like feature. Without the extended balance mechanisms. Small enough to tuck into a medium-sized shoulder bag.

The built-in project is fairly modest, more useful for screening the days’ work on a hotel wall than for a public screening. Still, the projected images can be as large as about three feet (diagonally), and if they aren’t beautiful HD quality, they are far, far better than the images you’d be watching on the built-in 3-inch LCD screen.

Although the results are suitable for professional purposes, this is, in essence, a prosumer camcorder. It’s nice to see nearly 100GB of built-in memory (which goes quickly when shooting in HD), and it uses SD cards. There are XLR connectors for professional microphones, and a decent amount of control for just about every application. And there are a gaggle of other useful features, all common in this price category.

The news here is the built-in stabilization. Many will purchase this camera for that feature alone. And, hopefully, we’ll see lots of cameras with a similar feature–it should become standard in two or three years.

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