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Mark Weir, Sony Electronics. Photo courtesy of Sony Electronics. Imaging Resource Interview: Mark Weir, Sony
By Michael R. Tomkins, The Imaging Resource
(Tuesday, January 11, 2011 - 23:31 EST)

Mark Weir, Senior Manager of Technology and Marketing at Sony Electronics sat down with Dave Etchells, Publisher, and Shawn Barnett, Senior Editor of Imaging-Resource.com for a discussion about Sony's latest and future products, including the promise of 3D capture across several of its products, and the company's intention to produce the long-awaited followup to the Sony Alpha A700.

Dave Etchells: Let's start with a question we've been asking everyone. The personal electronics space is changing radically. Apart from long zooms, how can digicams hold off mirrorless cameras with better image quality on the one side, and cellphone cameras that are good enough, but with better connectivity on the other?

Mark Weir: I think what we're seeing is the emergence of compact digital cameras that can overcome some of the limitations that have always constrained consumers from taking great pictures in adverse circumstances. The advent of the camera that can take several pictures and combine them into a single, outstanding photo, really allows the compact cameras to overcome limitations in sensor dynamic range and low-light sensitivity, while at the same time maintaining low noise. It also lets you take pictures that really weren't possible before, like easily made panorama or wide-angle shots. The ability to take better pictures under bad or difficult lighting conditions, combined with the automation that allows the camera to sense those difficult conditions and make the decision of when to use those modes on the fly, will become really appealing.

We believe that most compact camera customers primarily want to take a great picture. They may not want to learn how to adjust the camera to overcome the difficulties when they run in to them, or how to anticipate those difficulties. If the camera can take a great picture by itself without major intervention, we think that'll be pretty appealing.

Another area where we do see real opportunities for the compact cameras is convergence of not just great still pictures, but also the ability to take great video. For the last couple of years, I think you've seen not only the industry but Sony as well, really pushing to deliver better and better video quality -- first the move to HD video, and now the move to Full HD video -- to really allow the compact camera to be a video capture device as well. Last year, we delivered AVCHD, Full HD 60i capability in a compact camera, and this year at the show we've shown a model that can capture 1,920 x 1,080 60p video. With that kind of video capability in a compact camera, there are some real appealing benefits to compacts these days.

DE: So you see the digital compacts maintaining a significant edge in terms of features and capability over cellphone cameras, and enough of an edge to really provide a reason to carry them?

Weir: Yes, I believe that that's really something that has to happen for compact cameras to continue to flourish in this market. There is certainly a convenience advantage; the single-device advantage for cellphones, but I believe that compact cameras will continue to have the ability to take a better picture than a cellphone for some time, and that's really what will drive the appeal of these products for consumers.

DE: Another factor is the huge growth in social networking. How do you see this changing digital camera designs, and how do you see Sony helping its customers share their images in 2011?

Mark Weir, Senior Manager of Technology and Marketing, Sony Electronics. Photo courtesy of Sony Electronics.Weir: Well, we agree. The use of images for the purpose of visual communication, as opposed to, say, the traditional use of archiving special moments forever, is again one of the fast-rising uses of imaging, and creating capture devices that really support that "use style" is something that we're working very hard on, particularly with the class of cameras that we call Bloggie and Bloggie Touch, which we introduced in 2010. We've made it easy not only to capture still images, but also Full HD video, again for those that are using imaging for the purpose of communication. By combining not only the capture device but the software that makes it easy to share on the network that you're looking for, Bloggie really makes it easy to use that style of image capture for communication. What we're doing in 2011 to really drive that forward is to expand from a single model, to three new models that we've introduced. One area that we think is particularly exciting is 3D Bloggie which can capture 3D video with two lenses and two sensors. That video can be uploaded to YouTube and it can be enjoyed by anyone without the need of the 3D TV. Just a pair of anaglyph glasses can allow you to enjoy the 3D video that you've captured and uploaded to a sharing site like YouTube, which is now fully compatible with that 3D video capture.

DE: Is some of that social networking software, the facilitation software, coming into the CyberShot line as well?

Weir: Well, we have for some time pursued what we call PMB Portable, which is software embedded into the device itself, which automatically launches when you connect it to a PC, to make it easy to upload and share. The software that we use for Bloggie is not quite the same as PMB Portable, but its objective is the same. Software embedded in the device to make the sharing experience seamless and easy, no software to install on the computer. You can use the device with any computer that you have, any PC that you encounter -- simply plug the device into the PC, and make very, very easy sharing connections to the sharing site of your choice.

DE: Let's turn to some of the Alpha products now. Since its launch, the Sony NEX-5 has been pinned at number one on our site in terms of page view popularity, so congratulations on that.

Weir: Well, thanks.

DE: How has that translated in terms of sales, and what about sales in the U.S. versus worldwide? I know there's kind of a split between Japan, the U.S., and Europe in terms of the mirrorless cameras and how they've been received. How do you see the NEX line playing?

Weir: Well, NEX-3 and NEX-5 have really very strongly established themselves in the mirrorless camera market. They are by far the number one selling mirrorless cameras in the United States, at least from the syndicated research that we are seeing. The overall penetration of mirrorless cameras in the U.S. appears to be not quite as high a percentage of the total interchangeable lens camera market as it is in say, Asia and Japan, where it's a good bit higher, but that's because we see adoption curves -- take-up rates, if you will -- being a little bit different in different parts of the world. We see mirrorless as a percent of total industry being a little bit higher in Europe, but roughly the same as in the U.S. Certainly in Asia, where the compactness of an interchangeable lens camera without a mirror is really prized, we see that adoption rate being a bit higher. In the U.S., we see mirrorless camera rates gradually rising, but for NEX-3 and NEX-5 it's been very exciting, because very, very soon after introduction, they became the very, very strong players in the category.

DE: So with mirrorless in the U.S., you see it more as being a matter of time, it's just a slower adoption curve? Do you think it is a fundamental difference in terms of what consumers' image of the camera is or what they fundamentally want?

Weir: I think that adoption rates in the U.S. will really emerge as the use case for the customer becomes more clear, but we do see it taking a little bit longer in the U.S. because the way the products are used takes a little time to develop.

DE: One thing that's a little different about the NEX line is that, at Photokina, Sony made an announcement that was very explicit about their support for third-party lens adapters and working with adapter manufacturers to engineer mounts for many different lenses. From our side, it's looking like that is a significant phenomenon. One of our main tech guys bought an NEX himself, and has several different, obscure manual lenses on it. How big a factor is this in the market? Is it a significant portion of the sales for the NEX?

Weir: Well, I would say that the enabling characteristic of E-mount to use those legacy lenses is certainly very, very important to the owners of those lenses, because it provides a pathway for those lenses to be useful for digital photography that simply wasn't there in the past. At the same time, the number of those in circulation is really more geared toward enthusiasts. I would say that it is a significant part in establishing the legitimacy and the preference for the E-mount system as being really quite different from some of the other mirrorless formats that have been developed. There are certain advantages to E-mount which are not shared by other approaches, but it's really not so much the dominant force. The dominant force remains the same: It's a platform by which real, creative photography can be enjoyed by those who may not be interested in carrying a full-size SLR, or who may want to explore this kind of photography a little bit differently. The E-mount system provides flexibility and creative control that can be enjoyed with a larger SLR, but from a completely different perspective. The types of photography that can be enjoyed are a bit different, because you're really carrying much less gear. The opportunities to use different products really expands that benefit even further, but the fundamentals are the same. You can now have a very high performance camera with you far more frequently than you would if you owned a full-size digital SLR.

DE: Given the huge popularity of the NEX cameras, how has that shifted Sony's digital SLR strategy?

Weir: Not really at all. It was always our intention to maintain a very strong presence with the A-mount system, and to develop and cultivate a new user base with the E-mount system. Our dedication to the A-mount system was very much on display at Photokina and PhotoPlus in the Fall of last year, and here at CES we are showing new models to be introduced in the near future, in terms of both camera, flash, lenses, all of which are A-mount oriented. So, we're really quite dedicated to developing products for both the A-mount system and the E-mount system because we do believe that both have roles to play.

DE: That leads naturally into my next question, about the Alpha line-up. There's been a significant hole in Sony's prosumer line, where the A700 competed in the same category as the current Canon 60D and 7D, or the Nikon D7000 and D300S. We thought it was a very well-designed camera, and have been a little disappointed that its successor hasn't materialized yet. Will the A700 line rise again?

Weir: Well, we are aware of the concerns for an A700 successor, and we've been addressing them as best we can, but at the same time, we've also been addressing other market segments as well. I think it's important to recognize that there are a number of what we could refer to as enthusiast or mid-class cameras, each of which has virtues of its own, and it was important for us to develop a model that would have its own set of virtues that might go beyond, or perhaps be a little bit different from what other manufacturers were doing. With the technology platforms that we have and that we've introduced in 2010, we believe that we'll be able to move forward and develop a mid-class model -- an enthusiast model -- which will offer new advantages and new technologies that are not available on the market today. You know, we absolutely understand and value the point about the continuity that an interim A700 successor model would have offered, but we prioritized the development of new capabilities, new benefits, and new technologies such that the A700 successor will be a truly unique and revolutionary product.

DE: So development has been proceeding apace, and given the amount of time that's passed, we can assume that means great things are coming.

Weir: Yes. We've been acutely aware of the concern for the arrival of the A700 successor -- actually, quite acutely aware, and we're sorry that it's taken as long as it has -- but we believe that when this successor arrives, everyone will realize that it was very valuable to first develop the technologies and the capabilities that will go into the model, and to save it for those.

DE: Sony's been innovating a lot with the SLR format this last year, in that we saw your single-lens translucent mirror technology (SLTs). So far, that technology has been in more of the mid-range models. Do you think there's a possibility of a more advanced model that would fill the price gap between the A580 and the A850, that might be using that SLT technology?

Weir: Yes, at Photokina we announced that the A700 successor, which will naturally be positioned between those two models, will incorporate the translucent mirror technology. We also announced that we would continue the development of the key devices which make the translucent mirror technology possible. With another year of development of those key devices, we believe that we'll see a new generation of translucent mirror cameras with new capabilities. It has been discussed widely in the forums that just putting the translucent mirror technology as it stands today in the A700 successor wasn't to the liking of a few who commented, but suffice it to say that further developing the technology, we think that we will create products with rather remarkable capabilities, and we are very eager to introduce that model so that everyone can see what we can do through further developments in the technology.

DE: Well, we're certainly eager to see it ourselves. Does Sony see enough demand in the full-frame DSLR category to continue advancing those models as well? What's happening with full-frame, do you think, in business?

Weir: Well, I think that from an industry standpoint, our view is rather similar to the industry's view. That is, that full-frame represents a bit of a paradox. It is certainly a critical part of any SLR line-up. All one has to do is to look at the lens line-ups that are offered, and it's easy to see that taking full advantage of many of the high performance lenses any manufacturer's lens line-up really requires a very high performance, full-frame camera. Yet, at the same time, if you look at the market, the market has shifted increasingly toward the use of APS-C cameras, even in the enthusiast and semi-pro space. I think it comes as no surprise that many of the models that really are attracting the attention of many enthusiast, semi-pro and even professional users these days are no longer full-frame, but rather the very, very top-end of the APS-C line-ups that are being created. So, I think manufacturers are faced with sort of a challenge. They very much need to continue to offer high performance, full-frame models, but at the same time, that need is balanced against what photographers are actually using and purchasing. This has led to longer life cycles for full-frame cameras, and whereas a mainstream or enthusiast-class APS-C model might have a 12 or 18 month life cycle, we see the full-frame cameras having two and three-year model life cycles. It's kind of a balance for the manufacturers.

DE: So it's tricky -- they're still a very key segment, but it seems like they're becoming more of a niche, as APS-C capabilities have advanced.

Weir: Correct. I think it came as a surprise to many; the emergence and the popularity of the top-end APS-C models that are available in the industry. They've actually taken quite a bit of the share from the mainstream-priced, full-frame models. That's something that I think all manufacturers have noticed.

DE: Now, I'm looking at some specifics in your line. The Alpha A580 has largely been out of stock since it was first made available. Is this because of high demand for that particular camera, or something else? What do you see for the prospects of getting that stock replenished?

Weir: Well, we can't really comment on production capacities and things like that, but certainly the A580 and also the A55 have seen demand that has exceeded just about everyone's initial expectations. I believe that that's not only a challenge that we face here at Sony, I believe it's an industry-wide challenge. I think most everyone recognizes that the growth in the digital SLR market has exceeded pretty much what anyone would've thought in the U.S. Asking anyone what their thoughts of growth for the 2010 market were at the beginning of this year, most would have doubted the growth that we've seen this year could have been realized. But furthermore, I think the growth in the upper segments was not anticipated. I doubt that anyone in the industry could've foreseen the demand that has materialized for SLRs in the above-$700 or $800 space. I think everybody's playing a bit of catch-up in terms of procurement and manufacturing, but we expect to be in a good situation as we head into the Spring.

DE: So even with the soft economy, there's been a lot more growth at the high end of the SLR market, or the high end of the prosumer market, than there has been at the low end.

Weir: Yeah, it's really remarkable if you look at the syndicated research that measures sell-through: Invariably, in the top ten or top twenty models, you will see more step-up and mid-class models than you will entry-class models, which is really quite remarkable. In a soft economy, enthusiasts are stepping forward and buying digital SLRs at a very high rate -- very strong growth versus our prior year. The other thing we're seeing is the emergence of the second-time digital SLR purchaser. Up until very recently, it's just been their first-time purchase who's dominated, but now we see the emergence of second- and third-time purchases.

DE: That leads into the next question I had for you, about lens strategy and price-points for lenses. With the introduction of some of the entry-level Alphas, Sony made a significant point of developing low-cost primes for that line, figuring that the step-up digicam users who were buying those models would be candidates for these inexpensive prime lenses. Has that really borne out in the marketplace? Are some of those former digicam users really lens customers, or is it actually the enthusiasts that are the big lens purchasers?

Weir: I would say for now, it's really a two-part market. If you look at the syndicated research, the U.S. lens businesses -- obviously, it's divided into many parts -- but there are two that really represent the majority of what's happening in the lens businesses. There's the mainstream telephoto zooms which are attached at the time of purchase to the mainstream camera, or that are promoted for purchase shortly thereafter, and that really makes up the bulk of the units. If you look at the data, the 55-200mm telezoom or the 70-300mm telezoom that is promoted at the time of purchase really represents a tremendous part of the lens units that are sold. Of course, it's seasonal -- it depends on the time of year -- but that's one area which is very important.

The other part of the business is the lenses that are sold to enthusiasts, and these are typically wide-aperture 24-70mm or wide-aperture 70-200mm, but we believe that part of what makes that part of the business smaller than the more promotional side of the business is affordability. Obviously, serious enthusiasts will have several times the value of their camera invested in lenses, but that isn't to the liking of everyone.

One of the key advantages of an interchangeable lens camera is the photography that's available to you when you take that standard zoom or that standard telezoom off the camera and explore what you can do with primes, macros, portrait lenses, but most especially what you can do with wide aperture lenses. It's for this reason that we created a series of lenses that are drastically more affordable than what a traditional wide aperture portrait or wide aperture prime would cost, and really not just offer, say, a 50mm or a 35mm, but a variety of lenses -- a 30mm macro, an 85mm wide aperture, a prime for portraiture, mid telephoto, 50mm f/1.8, a 35mm f/1.8. By offering a family of lenses of that type that can be explored in the $150-$250 price range, we think it's something that will encourage all those customers who are now moving into SLRs to really explore the real advantage of interchangeable lens photography. But, as an industry, still, it's a lot of the promotional tele-zoom. There's another part of it, which are the wide aperture, standard, and telephoto zooms, and we think that there's a real opportunity offering affordable primes.

DE: So the purchases of those, then -- it isn't the soccer mom buying an SLR, but it's an enthusiast on a budget, basically. Make a value proposition for being able to assemble a collection of lenses affordably.

Weir: Yes. I mean, let's face it, the real advantage of owning an interchangeable lens camera is fully realized when you've got more than one or two lenses in your bag. With four or five or six, now you have the opportunity to really do something with the camera. Obviously, premium glass is going to be the goal for many, but for those without those means, here's a way to really get the greatest use out of the camera without necessarily having to invest as much.

DE: As videos become more prominent, that's put some demands on lenses in terms of focus speed, to be able to work with -- well, I guess less of an issue for Sony, because you have phase detect AF during videos on the SLT models, so you don't need the speed for the contrast detect -- but certainly sound is still important; the quieter SSM motors. Will we see more lower-priced G-series lenses for Alphas and E-mounts, with the SSM motor?

Weir: Well, SSM as a motor type -- a piezoelectric solid state drive -- is very expensive to make. It's very expensive for everyone to make. What you are seeing is the emergence of hybrid silent AF motors. Not only in our lens line-up, but in everyone's lens line-up who is exploring video in their digital SLRs. With A-mount, we have silent AF in a number of our lenses, and you will see more and more of that. We will certainly be introducing more and more lenses with SSM motors as well. We're really pursuing a two-part strategy with A-mount -- not only affordable, but also some high-performance SSM lenses as well, which are well-suited for video.

On the E-mount side, we have the advantage of creating not only a lens mount, but a lens platform, which starts from day one as being optimized for video. By arranging focusing groups and optimizing their size, and moving them in such a way that we have silent AF from the beginning, we have advantages that can only be realized by creating a new standard from the beginning.

Another point to keep in mind is that, when shooting video with an SLR, another great advantage to help with focus and camera noise in general is the use of external microphones. With our video-equipped SLRs, from the very beginning we introduced a line of external microphones, which helps a lot.

DE: Is Sony aware of the request from its users in terms of a firmware update for SLT models and NEX models, requesting more control during video shooting? We've seen some movement towards that in the NEX firmware update, but people are wanting more control on those kinds of platforms. If so, is it reasonable to think that Sony might update current models using the firmware enhancement feature?

Weir: Well, we are always listening to customer demands. We are always monitoring forums and we are always trying to do the best we can to offer the features that our enthusiasts are looking for. We are certainly aware of the interest in having broader control for aperture and shutter speed, particularly during movie capture. We believe that there are some limitations to that, which are not immediately apparent. I think the world of video capture with an SLR is new for a lot of consumers, and not everybody understands that the full breadth of shutter speeds that you would have with still photography doesn't really apply to movie capture. I think there's sort of a learning curve with video capture. We certainly would like to provide a broader capability for aperture control with movie capture; there's full aperture control with movie capture in SLT right now, it's just not with AF at the same time. That's really a characteristic of phase-detect AF, if you keep in mind that phase-detect AF was originally designed around still photography, with the instant-return iris and instant-return mirror characteristic of still photography, phase-detect AF always operates at widest possible aperture. We recognize that, and we recognize that aperture control is a very important part of video capture, and that's why we offer a full aperture control with manual AF in SLT. The goal of having continuous phase-detect AF with aperture control is something that we're thinking about, but it will take more development before that can be realized. Suffice it to say, we certainly like to provide more and more capabilities all the time, but there are some constraints that stand in the way that may not be quite so immediately apparent, but we are working to overcome them.

DE: That's interesting, the fact that the phase detect requires a particular baseline, a width on the AF sensor, to be able to get a given level of accuracy and that sets the minimum aperture. It occurs to me, just as you can relax some things like image stabilization with video (the lower resolution means your IS control doesn't have to be quite as tight for video as for stills), perhaps we can have not quite as tight a control on the focusing as well, thereby allowing a shorter baseline on the AF sensor, and that might permit a wider range of apertures.

Weir: Yes, particularly with wide-aperture lenses, the baseline of most anybody's phase-detect AF sensor is optimized at about f/5.6 because typically, that's the minimum aperture you're going to find for most lenses. Are there opportunities to relax that requirement to allow smaller apertures for video? Definitely something that we're thinking about, but again, it sounds great in theory -- when you actually try to put it into practice, it isn't always quite that easy. For now, full aperture control with manual AF we think is a very, very useful creative tool. Actually, if you think about just about every other SLR that's capturing video available today, when you're operating it, you're most of the time using manual AF anyway.

DE: Last year, at a couple of shows, we saw a 500mm G-series f/4.0 lens for Sony. Can you say anything about the release schedule on that? Is that coming before next Christmas?

Weir: I don't know that we have made any formal comment on timing, but I think that most have inferred that with the state of the units that we've exhibited at Photokina, Photo Plus, and now at CES, that it will be coming soon.

DE: We mentioned the SLT technology before. Sony really broke new ground with that translucent mirror with a consumer camera selling in a $700 package rivaling the frame-rate of $4,000 cameras from Canon and Nikon, so where do you go from ten frames per second?

Weir: Well, obviously there are some mechanical limitations to mechanically operated systems. We've managed to bypass the mechatronics of a moving mirror system with SLT, but there are other mechanical systems to deal with, with SLRs. There's the focal plane shutter, there's the activation of the iris -- there are other mechanisms which will need to be improved to get through that performance barrier of ten frames per second with continuous AF. But suffice it to say, we are looking at the kinds of technology that will be required to continuously increase the operational speed of a digital SLR. I think we have some technologies coming that will be very impressive to many people, very soon.

DE: This is a related, but bit deeper technology question. Can CMOS sensors be gated electronically to control exposure the way CCDs are, by shuffling the charge someplace in the pixel when it's in its OFF state? Is that a fundamental limitation of CMOS, or is it just that nobody's designed them that way yet?

Weir: I think it's really more a case of the path of development. I think that there's a lot of things that can be done -- there aren't many limitations to what can be done with CMOS. I think that the way it's been developed so far has been based on the way it's been used, so I would say that as different uses for the technology emerge, the sensors themselves will adapt.

DE: So they're being applied in a particular, dominant usage model, and therefore their characteristics have been optimized to support that, as opposed to optimized or traded off to support some other usage.

Weir: Yeah, generally, I think that we could say that the use case tends to drive the technology, but then the reverse happens when disruptive technology is created, which changes the use case. But I wouldn't say that there's a fundamental limitation as much as there was a design intention.

Shawn Barnett: With respect to CMOS, as you just mentioned, and 1080p video: Do you know if there's any kind of connection between meeting the requirement for HD video and the decrease in still-image quality we've seen lately? Particularly as we've gone from 12-megapixel to 14-megapixel sensors in point & shoots, across the board (from all manufacturers), we've seen maximum print sizes at any given ISO actually decrease. Not just on-screen 1:1 image quality, but actual final print quality. And by much more than just the decrease in pixel size would normally have led us to expect. Have sensor design constraints imposed by HD video required a trade-off against noise levels and still-image quality?

Weir: Well, I think it's worth saying that the CMOS sensors that are typically used in compact cameras are in their initial stages of development. The use of CMOS in compact sensor cameras has taken place over a shorter time than the use of CMOS in large-sensor camera. Therefore, I think it's only reasonable to expect that the development cycle of CMOS in small sensor cameras is in its initial stages. Indeed, in 2011, we've shown new third-generation CMOS sensors for compacts -- this'll be our second generation of Exmor R and third generation of Exmor for compact cameras. [Editor's note: Exmor R is Sony's back-illuminated CMOS sensor technology, while Exmor without the "R" refers to their normal, front-illuminated CMOS tech.] I think it's been generally held that every new generation of material science, at least in our sensors, has led to performance improvements rather than performance reductions, at least from what I've seen and read in terms of evaluations. I think that as the technology matures, not only will there be new use cases which are supported, but also higher performance realized.

Probably the point that comes to mind the most for me, in this year's release of small-sensor CMOS, has been the realization of 60p Full HD video. Just the refresh rates necessary and the throughput required for 1,920 x 1,080, 60 fps progressive video, up until very recently was simply unavailable. I think that in 2011, we'll see that as being a capability in the sensors and, to an extent, the processors, which will really transform what can be done with video. I believe that the advances in material science will allow still picture quality to keep up with it as well.

It's also important to keep in perspective the image quality that can be realized with a single capture, versus the image quality that can be realized with multiple captures. I think the perspective needs to be maintained that, even though individual capture may not improve greatly, the benefit of multiple capture that's made possible by the speed of the sensor can realize picture quality advantages which transcend what any individual capture can do, simply because there's so much more new data to work with.

DE: So with that new capability, we may start seeing multiple capture modes that would be applied not just night lighting or night scenes, but to more typical indoor lighting or something like that?

Weir: Yes, if you consider -- take a look at what we're doing with multiple capture. At first, the idea of multiple capture was for low-light sensitivity, the notion being, "why increase ISO, why not just increase the amount of data that you have to work with?" That certainly had some profound impacts on low-light photography. From there, we went to the construction of wide-angle images with sweep panorama. However, we've also used the technology to overcome limitations in dynamic range, to explore in-camera HDR that's not only highly effective, but also very accessible. It's very easy for anyone to overcome common problems of backlighting, which everyone faces from time to time, simply by -- via the high-speed sensor and high-speed processor -- capturing many images, overcoming limitations of dynamic range. But we've gone even further than that. One of the great limitations of any compact camera has been achieving shallow depth of field; to be able to focus your attention on the subject by separating your subject from the background. [This is] impossible with small sensor cameras, unless you consider the idea of two captures -- one focused on the subject, and one defocused -- and then the ability to assemble the two in a feature we call background defocus. Now, another idea has emerged -- multiple capture for the purpose of 3D. By capturing two different images, one focused on the subject and one reference image, a depth map can be created to capture a 3D image without any movement of the camera at all. These new ideas for what can be done with multiple capture to expand what you can do with photography; I think that those ideas will continue.

DE: OK, last question, one we're asking a lot of people again this year. I'll ask you to pull out your crystal ball here... 2009 was a pretty tough year for everybody, but in 2010 it seemed like we were seeing some signs of recovery. For us, it was a big holiday season and we saw a significant traffic increase over last year. What's going to happen in 2011, do you have any idea? What's your reading on the market?

Weir: Well, I think most would assume that growth will continue in the SLR space. I think growth will continue in the mirrorless space, because I do believe that there are more and more customers looking to take better pictures and to do more with their photography. I believe that customer purchase interests will also be fueled by the kinds of cameras that become available. I do believe a lot of the popularity and a lot of the growth in imaging has come simply because the technology continues to offer compelling products. I believe that cameras which allow consumers to explore their creativity to a greater degree; cameras that take better pictures; cameras that allow people to engage in social networking and visual communication more conveniently, will all continue to drive growth. One area that I think will also certainly drive growth is the emergence of 3D imaging as an accessible and beneficial use case.

I think that one of the things that will drive adoption of 3D and sort of provide people with an appreciation for the benefits of 3D will be the notion of 3D personal content. I think it's easy enough to make the case for 3D enjoyment in the home, presuming that there's a wide variety of packaged content available to enjoy, but personal content and the enjoyment of personal content adds a whole different benefit and a whole different motivator. Done well, 3D can be very beneficial to personal content, and it really can change the way imaging is done. For years, we've talked about the shift from a printed image to a displayed image; well, obviously, that's taken a long time to realize simply because there's such a great benefit to a printed image, particularly a well-printed image. The benefit of a displayed image versus a printed image can be debated based on personal taste. The benefit of a displayed image in 3D has some very real benefits, and it's pretty compelling when done well and it's accessible. I think one of the things we've done this year, not just in still cameras but also with Bloggie cameras and particularly with camcorders, is explored this idea of 3D personal content generation. I think that's going to be pretty compelling.

SB: So basically, having the ability to capture your own images electronically and display them electronically could be the one factor that makes 3D more accessible than it has been for the last 30, 40 years that the technology has existed?

Weir: Yes, and also 3D for the purpose of greater realism, as opposed to 3D for the purpose of ...

SB: Shock value.

Weir: Yes, exactly. That's why I'm saying 3D done well. It can be more immersive, but I think its real value is what it provides for your personal memories, which for many is what's motivating their engagement with photography or their engagement with video. I think it adds another element which will be difficult to gauge the impact of, but from what we've seen, it certainly does add another element that's particularly compelling. So it won't be one element that drives the growth; I think it's a variety. If you look at the whole picture, it's that photography and video are now doing much more for consumers than they ever have in the past. In the past, it's been a hobby and it's been a method of archiving your personal moments, but the benefit that has been developed because of the new technologies is increasing over and over again. It's not like there's a big development year and then we sort of take a year off, or something. Every year, the benefit has been increased several times, and I think that that's what makes it a very compelling category and very interesting to consumers. I think it's all of those elements. To be able to take better pictures, to be able to easily engage in social communication and networking, and 3D and what it will do for personal content. I think it's all of those together that will make imaging continue to grow in 2011 and beyond.

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