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The 'Four Thirds System' logo. Courtesy of Olympus Optical Co. (Europa) GmbH and Eastman Kodak Company. Olympus / Kodak cooperation to bear fruit soon? (UPDATED)
By Michael R. Tomkins, The Imaging Resource
(Tuesday, September 24, 2002 - 05:00 EDT)

A joint press release issued today describes an agreement by the two companies to implement a new system for interchangeable lens digital SLR cameras.

Regular readers may well remember a story first uncovered by Yamada Kumio at the digitalcamera.jp website almost 18 months ago, which predicted that Kodak and Olympus were cooperating on a 4/3" CCD-based digital SLR with interchangeable lenses. That design has yet to see the light of day, and in fact a statement from Olympus USA played down the story and in particular the suggestion that the described 5.1 megapixel interchangeable lens digital SLR (even using a 4/3" sensor) could cost as little as US$1600.

A year and a half later, it seems our summation of the second news item was wise. We noted that "[much] depends on what other cameras are launched by Olympus' rivals (and at what price points) in this time - and believe us, in the digicam world 18 months is a very long time". Now, we are already seeing interchangeable lens digital SLRs with higher resolutions having almost reached this price, with Nikon's D100 currently selling for around $2000, and increasing competition is still drawing prices downwards.

Whilst Kodak and Olympus later announced an alliance which saw the two companies cross-licensing their digital camera technologies, the predicted announcement at PMA 2002 of a 4/3" digital SLR in Yamada-san's original article didn't happen. That article also suggested that a camera would be on sale by Photokina 2002, which officially starts tomorrow - and we've seen much discussion on the Internet as to whether Kodak and Olympus would indeed show a 4/3" format digicam at Photokina.

Today's announcement by both companies makes no mention of planned products or release timeframes, however - the closest that it comes is showing a mockup of a camera which looks very reminiscent of Olympus' Camedia E-series SLR-style digicams, but with a portrait grip built in, and an interchangeable lens (shown below). The initiative has now been publicly detailed, though, and the standard given a name - `the 'Four Thirds System' (or '4/3 System' if you prefer) - but beyond stating that "[the] two companies have resolved to aggressively implement this new standard in their respective product lines", there's not much detail as to what to expect, and when.

Four Thirds System camera mockup. Courtesy of Olympus Optical Co. (Europa) GmbH.

Kodak and Olympus will apparently establish the "Universal Digital Interchangeable Lens System Forum" to promote their new lens system, which will offer an open standard for camera body and lens mounts, defining guidelines for points such as image circle size and back focus distance required of 4/3 System lenses.

It remains to be seen whether the 4/3 System will succeed or fall by the way-side. To be sure, there are advantages to adopting such a system - smaller lenses, smaller (and hence cheaper) imagers that take full advantage of the lens' capabilities, and the ability to use lenses from one manufacturer on another manufacturer's camera, amongst others. There are also potential pitfalls as well, though.

Kodak and Olympus will have to persuade existing photographers that there is a good reason to abandon their existing glass in favour of a new format. New photographers may not be encumbered by a collection of lenses in another format, but they will still need to be persuaded that there's no risk of the format becoming obsolete before they'll hand over their money for a 4/3 System setup.

Olympus and Kodak have apparently already signed up Fuji Photo Film Co., Ltd according to their press release. Other competing manufacturers such as Nikon and Canon, though, will likely take some persuading to come around to a new format. With their existing proprietary lens mounts, these companies can choose who to allow licenses to manufacture compatible lenses, and ensure that they make a profit off each lens sold for their cameras. They may not see an advantage in opening up the lens mount to competition, when they currently have a captive 'audience' of camera owners who have little choice as to who makes their lenses.

If Olympus and Kodak want their standard to take off, they'll need to get products to market soon - before prices of competing digital SLRs drop to the point that they will find it difficult to take advantage of any cost benefits that their system may hold (ignoring, of course, the initial development costs that will be incurred). They'll also need to find the right way to market these lenses to a public which will not only be keen to have smaller, lighter lenses, but that values high image quality and feature-rich camera designs.

Given a good batch of initial products based on the format, Olympus and Kodak could stand to do very well out of the 4/3 System. Get the launch wrong, and the format could become known as the 'betamax' of the digital imaging community.

UPDATED 2002-09-24 22:03ET: Courtesy of our friends at LetsGoDigital.nl, we now have more pictures of the prototype in another news item...
Source: Olympus Optical Co. (Europa) GmbH and Eastman Kodak Company

Original Source Press Release:

Olympus and Kodak Agree to Implement Four Thirds System Digital SLR Camera Standard

  • First-of-its-kind common standard for digital cameras
  • Secures lens mount compatibility among manufacturers
  • New Universal Digital Interchangeable Lens System Forum to be established
September 24, 2002, Cologne, Germany -- Olympus Optical Co., Ltd. of Japan and Eastman Kodak Company of the United States today announced that they have agreed to implement the Four Thirds System (4/3 System), a new standard for next-generation digital SLR camera systems that will ensure interchangeable lens mount compatibility. The two companies have resolved to aggressively implement this new standard in their respective product lines, and to establish the Universal Digital Interchangeable Lens System Forum, an industry forum that will promote acceptance of the Four Thirds System by other camera manufacturers. Fuji Photo Film Co., Ltd. has already agreed to participate in the new standard.

About Four Thirds System
The Four Thirds System is not based on existing standards for 35mm film SLR camera system lenses, but instead establishes a new common standard for the interchange of lenses developed exclusively to meet the optical design requirements of digital SLR cameras.

4/3-Inch (Type) Image Sensor Size
The Four Thirds System uses a 4/3-type CCD, CMOS or other image sensor, and will facilitate the development of dedicated digital camera lens systems that maximize image sensor performance and ensure outstanding image quality while also being smaller and easier to handle than 35mm film SLR camera lens systems.

Lens Mount Standardization
By establishing an open standard for camera body and lens mounts, the new system will make it possible to standardize lens mounting systems, something that has been impossible to achieve with digital SLR cameras that are based on existing 35mm film SLR lens systems. In addition, the new system defines standards for image circle size (the diameter of the area in which the subject is resolved) and back focus distance (the distance from the lens mount to the image sensor).

Development Background
Current digital SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses are basically based on conventional 35mm camera systems. As a result, they must be equipped with image sensors that are comparable in size to 35mm and APS film. However, because the imaging characteristics of these large CCDs are fundamentally different from those of film, a number of issues can prevent them from achieving their full performance potential. These include: (1) Although film is capable of responding to light striking the surface at a high angle of incidence, a high angle of incidence can prevent sufficient light from reaching sensor elements at the periphery of a CCD and result in reduced color definition, particularly when shooting with wide-angle lenses. (2) To achieve the resolutions required by the micron pitch of today's CCDs, the demands of optical design tend to result in the use of larger and heavier lenses.

Moreover, manufacturers of digital SLR camera systems have until now adopted the mounting systems used in their own respective 35mm film SLR cameras, making bodies and lenses produced by different manufacturers incompatible with one another.

In light of these circumstances, the new Four Thirds System standard was conceived to facilitate the design and development of digital SLR cameras and lenses that maximize the performance potential of digital imaging sensors, and provide users with product advantages such as compact size, handling ease, and enhanced functionality.

Benefits
The major benefit of Four Thirds System is that it allows the design of dedicated, high-performance digital camera lens systems that are more compact than 35mm film SLRcamera lens systems. The impact of the more compact lens size will be especially marked on telephoto lenses, making it possible to produce a Four Thirds System 300mm telephoto lens, for example, that offers performance equivalent to an approximately 600mm lens on a 35mm film SLR camera. In other words, it will be possible to offer the same angle of view in a lens that is only about one-half as long. The 4/3-type image sensor size will also allow the development of bright, high-performance zoom lenses that are more compact than those needed for use with image sensors the size of APS or 35mm film. By taking advantage of the more compact lens size, it will therefore be possible to develop lens systems that are much easier to handle than conventional 35mm film SLR camera lens systems. Furthermore, standardization of the lens mounting system will make it possible for consumers to photograph combining with bodies and lenses produced by different manufacturers, and enjoy a wider range of product selection.

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