|Comdex Fall '99 Highlights|
The Coolest Thing (that we did) at the Show!
While there were several other cool things (as noted by Mike below), top honors clearly go to Fuji, at least in terms of Mike and Dave's personal experience: Fuji had their famous blimp in attendance, at the North Las Vegas airport, and generously offered the two of us a ride on it! This was VERY cool! Neither of us had ever been in a blimp before, and the sensation was quite unlike any other airborne experience we'd ever had.
Of course, this all had absolutely nothing to do with digital photography, cameras, etc (other than that Dave was using one of the dimunitive Fuji MX-1700s to document the experience), but it was just too cool not to talk about here. - I guess Fuji's PR was effective, as it got them a nice chunk of space here!... ;-)
One thing that surprised us about the blimp was the extraordinary commitment it takes for Fuji to support her (it's referred to using the feminine gender) in her travels about the country. This shot shows just a few of the 20 ground crew members it takes to support her (along with 2 very specialized ground-support trucks and a host of other vehicles) as she travels around the country.
Another surprise was how posh and relatively spacious the interior was. We'd expected something on the order of metal chairs and aluminum decking, but the interior put most airline interiors to shame. It was also tall enough for 6'3" Dave (shown here snapping pictures of the cockpit) to stand comfortably inside. (This picture is rather noisy, having been shot at high ISO with a to-be-nameless digicam.)
The controls were also quite a bit more elaborate than we'd expected. Flying a blimp is quite different than handling a conventional aircraft, as it must be "statically stable": That is, it has to be able to float straight and level, even when no air is passing over its control surfaces. As you might expect, adding or subtracting passengers and fuel affects the "trim" of the airship significantly. Some of the controls available to the pilots adjust trim by pumping air into and out of large air bladders front and back. The added weight of the air adjusts the trim fore-to-aft.
Probably the most dramatic part of the whole experience was the takeoff: The blimp is usually trimmed to be neutrally buoyant - that is, to be able to float in mid air without rising or sinking. At takeoff, she gains altitude by tilting upward at a steep angle, and using the force of her propulsion fans to loft her skyward. This makes for a rather exciting takeoff, as the upward angle approaches 40 degrees or so (or at least, so it seemed). This shot shows a view from inside the cabin, oriented to place the horizon more or less horizontal. You can get some idea of the angle we took off at by the angle of the window and seat backs!
Overall, an absolute blast for Mike & Dave! After this, we imagine our motives will be suspect for leading-off with a report on Fuji's new "Super CCD" technology as the most significant digicam-related development we saw at the show. Although we apparently won't have real-world test images to show from the technology for a while yet, we think that even the third-generation scans-of-prints shown below will speak for themselves and protect our reputations...
Perhaps the most interesting thing we saw at Comdex, from a digicam point of view, was Fuji's recently announced SuperCCD. Whilst we've yet to see any prototype products based on the new chip, which features octagonal photodiodes in a honeycomb structure, unlike the rectangular photodiode, square structure of a normal CCD, the sample pictures shown by Fuji at the show were very impressive! Below is a small sample of just one of the samples in Fuji's handout (click on the picture for a larger version). Obviously, it is difficult to know how fair a comparison this picture is, since we do not know how the two photos have been handled after they were taken, however there is clearly far more information in the SuperCCD image, particularly in the fine "fuzz" on the peach, and the hairs of the kiwi fruit's skin. (Click for a larger version)
The image below is a further enlargement of the Kiwi fruit sample from above. This is a JPEG of a scan of an offset print of the original image (~3 generations removed from the original file), but still shows a dramatic difference between "conventional" and "Super CCD" technology. (Again, click for a full-sized version...)
According to Fuji, the SuperCCD's layout offers an effective resolution some 60% better than a standard CCD, as well as 130% better sensitivity, dynamic range and signal/noise ratio, 50% better color reproduction and significantly better power consumption (assuming that a SuperCCD with 40% fewer pixels can match the resolution of a standard CCD). The logical question is - how can simply changing the shape and orientation of the photodiodes in a SuperCCD produce such a dramatic improvement in image quality? Borrowing heavily from Fuji's own explanation, here's a quick summary of the reasons:
- Higher horizontal/vertical resolution: According to Fuji's research, due to gravity the usual characteristics of natural scenes tend towards more spacial frequency power in the horizontal and vertical planes, and analysis shows that the human eye makes use of this tendency, being more sensitive to high frequency information on these axes . A look at the layout of a conventional CCD shows that it has an exactly opposite tendency, offering a higher capture resolution on the 45 degree diagonals. The SuperCCD's layout reverses this, matching the human eye in capturing its highest resolution horizontally and vertically.
- Increased sensitivity, signal/noise ratio and dynamic range: The SuperCCD does away with the need for a control signal path as required in normal CCDs, allowing the photodiode to increase in size (and hence increasing the area of light that it can capture). At the same time, the shape of the photodiode is changed from rectangular to octagonal, which more closely matches the circular form of the microlens over it, again allowing for an increase in the effectiveness of light capture. This increased light capture allows for the gains in sensitivity (Fuji predicts an ISO rating of 800 in its brochure), signal/noise ratio and dynamic range.
At the same time, Fuji claims two further enhancements with the SuperCCD - both the video frame rate and the ability to use an electronic shutter (ie. turn the CCD on/off) rather than using a mechanical shutter, much more simply than is possible with a conventional CCD. Since the color layout of the SuperCCD features the R, G and B pixels on every horizontal line, it becomes simple to skip horizontal lines when reading from the CCD for video. With a conventional CCD, each horizontal line contains only the R and G or G and B pixels, necessitating that consecutive lines must be read to recapture the full RGB color information, and slowing down video capture. Fuji's SuperCCD can offer skipped readout at ratios of 1/2, 1/3 and more, offering video frame rates of 30 frames per second at 1/3 of the sensor resolution. The SuperCCD also takes a different approach to how it transfers charge through the transmission path, adding an extra packet to the standard three packets required to eliminate the mechanical shutter with a conventional CCD, at the same time as increasing the width of the transmission path to accomodate this. The result is the ability to control shutter speed completely from the CCD itself.
According to the Future Image Report, the SuperCCD should be scaleable up to a maximum of 10 megapixels, and the first SuperCCD-based cameras will show up in spring of 2000... If the samples we've seen are anything to go by, these cameras could make a big step forward over existing digicam quality.
Two interesting items hit the news from Olympus during Comdex. First of all, as we mentioned previously, Olympus has announced a deal with immersive imaging company Ipix, whereby owners of Olympus' D-450Z, D-400Z, D-340L, D-320L and D-220L digital cameras can now purchase an Ipix upgrade kit for $249. The kit consists of Olympus' fish-eye lens (which offers over a 180-degree viewing angle), two adapters, a tripod rotator, Ipix's IPIX Wizard 2.2 software and a certificate for three Ipix 360x360-degree immersive images. The three images must be used within 60 days, and additonal certificates can be purchased on a $1 per image basis.
(No pictures of the lens, but Olympus gets credit for one of the most animated exhibits at the show, with a trio of amazingly kinetic dancers tap-dancing and singing the glories of the Olympus products: Half the fun of Comdex is seeing what elaborate means various manufacturers will employ to lure a crowd into their booths. - The Olympus dancers were quite effective at this, we're glad we weren't the poor Sanyo people manning the booth across the aisle!)
Secondly, although not really digicam-related, Olympus announced the oh-so-cool EyeTrek personal TV display, essentially a pair of "glasses" that replicate a 62" wide-screen TV seen from 6 1/2 feet. The Eye-Trek, launched in Japan last year and since then having achieved 70% market share, features an plastic prism which features compound aspheric surfaces and achieves an excellent balance of image quality along with very light weight. The Eye-Trek allows the user to still see the outside world in their peripheral vision, and also automatically shuts itself off after a couple of hours usage to ensure that the user rests their eyes occasionally. It features either battery power (optional) or AC power, standard NTSC A/V or S-VHS inputs, built-in stereo earphones, color, contrast, tint, sharpness, brightness and white-balance controls, and 2 240,000 pixel LCD displays - all for a cost of $899.99 in a 3.8 ounce package (separate controller weighs 5.6 ounces). Wow!
The big news from Minolta was its new Dimage Scan Elite film scanner. Essentially an update of the Dimage Scan Speed, the Elite adds Applied Science Fiction's Digital ICE technology, which automatically corrects surface defects on scans. The Scan Speed's 2,820 dpi resolution and 12-bit A/D conversion with a dynamic range of 3.6 are retained. Up until now, the only film scanner with Digital ICE was Nikon's LS-2000, where it really impressed...
The folks at Sierra Imaging were showing off their Raptor II chipset at Comdex, and it certainly has some impressive specifications... If you've not already heard of Raptor II, essentially what it consists of is a full digital camera reference design which allows digital camera manufacturers to essentially buy the design "off the shelf", add their own touches to it and bring a digicam to market from the design in a very short space of time. Sierra provides the chips, firmware, software, development kits, and design services, whilst the manufacturer adds its own "value" to the design in terms of color management, user interface, etc. - allowing multiple vendors to brign very different cameras to the market based on the kit. Raptor II adds a new signal processing architecture which "overlaps" or "pipelines" multiple operations, and is capable of processing a whopping 3.3 megapixels per second. With word from the sensor manufacturers suggesting that 3 megapixel consumer cameras are likely to be upon us in the spring of 2000, this would suggest that we could be seeing digital cameras capable not only of these high resolutions, but of providing them with shot-shot cycle times of only 1 second!
The big news from Kodak at Comdex was a change in its pricing for the Professional digital cameras. A price drop sees the 6 megapixel DCS560 and 660 digital cameras fall from $29,995 to $24,995, whilst the DCS620 comes down from $16,995 to $10,795, and the DCS520 drops similarly from $14,995 to $9,995. Interestingly, from what we heard it would appear that the launch of Nikon's D1 has not had an adverse impact on Kodak's sales - in fact, it appears that the competition may be a good thing, with unit shipments of the DCS620 actually hitting an all-time high in October!
News at the show was that the JPEG2000 standard should soon be with us, and will feature wavelet based compression. In the meantime, we saw a truly impressive demonstration of wavelet compression in LizardTech's MRSID portable image format. Not only is the compression quite stunning, but the output is impressive even at huge sizes. One particular image that we saw printed on a posted measuring a good 4 or 5 feet tall came from an original 16MB image, and was compressed down to a mere 908KB with MrSID - and yet was virtually indistinguishable from the original... The up-sampling capability of MrSID was truly phenomenal, with our reaction to some of the prints we saw being one of disbelief at the amazing image quality... Look for articles on this and Altamira's "Genuine Fractals" on the site, coming soon...! This pretty much wraps up the digital imaging side of Comdex.
That said, we did see a few other cool things worth mentioning...
The latest thing to hit US shores from Taiwan is CD-R business cards. As the name suggests, these are business cards literally printed onto a mini CD-R disc. The two sides of the disc are cut off, to bring the disc down to the same size as a standard business card, leaving the shorter vertical sides of the card rounded to the same shape as the original CD. The clever thing is that sufficient space is retained to allow about 40MB of data to be stored on the card, offering you the chance to distribute for example, samples of your digital photos with your card. On top of this, the card is probably more likely to be kept and shown to others simply because it is a little unusual, which could help get your name around. From what the manufacturer we spoke to told us, these CD-R cards should work in almost any CD-ROM drive. Standard CDs can also be burned off, which obviously would save you money, but prevent you customising the discs or updating them from time to time...
We also saw what could well be a step in the direction of future PCs. The Qbe (pronounced "Cube") Altus is a letter-sized tablet computer that really goes a long way to offering the latest technology in an interesting form factor. With a Pentium-III 450 processor (P-III 600 planned), 8GB hard drive, 128MB RAM, modem, ethernet card, CD-RW or DVD-ROM, microphone, stereo speakers, SmartCard reader/writer, magnetic strip card reader, two type-II PC card slots, USB and Firewire ports, and optional digital camera, barcode reader and scanner attachments as well as a 13.3" screen and a maximum battery life of up to 4 hours (8 with an optional extended-life battery), this thing really is a full-sized desktop PC crammed into a tiny tablet! The unit has handwriting recognition, or alternatively can be used with a keyboard, mouse and monitor through the included "Porticle" docking station. The unit should ship next spring for $4,495 with docking station.
And finally, we couldn't wrap this up without mentioning the coolest looking booth of them all. The inaugural "Mike's 'Wow, that is an IMPRESSIVE booth' award" goes to Xerox, for their incredible Grecian ruin, complete with a game-show running in the center of it all...
The coolest attraction on any of the booths was provided by Computer Associates, who had the McLaren MP4-14 Formula One car of 1999 double world-champion Mika Hakkinen on their stand. Created from a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, this hand-made work of art was arguably the most expensive thing at the show...