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The Pentax Tottemo EG 'single use' digital camera. Courtesy of the Sanyo website, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Pentax, Sanyo cooperate on single-use digicam!
(Tuesday, October 9, 2001 - 19:22 EDT)

A digital camera for $16.50? There has to be a catch! There is - you have to give it back... ;)

A press release distributed today in Japan by Asahi Optical Co. Ltd, Altech Co. Ltd and Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. brings to fruition something we've long predicted - a digital equivalent to disposable 'single-use' film cameras. Going on a three-month trial-run in Japan from October 19th, consumers purchase a $16.50 digital camera sold under Asahi's Pentax brand, the Tottemo EG. The camera (specs available in our database) features 8MB of built-in flash memory, a 0.35 megapixel CMOS imager, a fixed-focal length, fixed focus lens equivalent to a 45mm lens on a 35mm film camera, and a built-in flash.

When the customer has captured as many images as they want (to a maximum of 24), they return the camera to the store they purchased it from, and receive one set of free prints - with the option to purchase duplicates, of course. The camera is returned to the manufacturer to be reinitialised, recharged and repackaged, before being 'sold' - or perhaps more realistically, rented - to another customer.

The idea is quite simple, and to be honest we're surprised it has taken so long to be realised - we could easily see hotels at tourist resorts renting digicams to their guests, for example. Whether Asahi and its partners have hit the right formula remains to be seen, though.

There are a number of potential stumbling blocks, not the least of which is the camera's bottom-end 640 x 480 pixel resolution, which realistically is only good for prints up to about 3.5" x 5". There's also no preview/review LCD display, which means that the main benefit of digital imaging to most consumers - the ability to see immediately whether a shot is good or bad - is lost. Another potential issue, depending on the capacity of the included battery and the efficiency of the camera's circuitry, is the potential that some users could find the camera running out of batteries before they've captured their allotted 24 images.

In fact, arguably a single-use film camera could prove the better of the Tottemo, with the battery powering only the flash, and the customer getting a set of negatives which allow them to get reprints wherever they want. This brings up one point which isn't mentioned in the press release, but could prove problematic. It isn't stated whether the customers' images are stored for reorder in the future, or whether once the initial set of prints and duplicates is the only chance a customer will have to order prints before the source image files are deleted. If the image files aren't stored long-term, then the only way to get reprints in the future would be to scan a print which itself comes from a very low-resolution image. Even if the image files are stored for you, unless there is a provision for the originals to be downloaded (which seems unlikely), then you're at the mercy of a third-party as to whether your images will still be available a few years down the road.

Two further points not mentioned which could affect the success of the scheme are whether there is any provision for users to delete images on-the-spot if they are unlikely to have been good, and what ISO rating the camera has. If the ISO rating is too low, results in the situations where the cameras would likely be used will potentially be disappointing, leading to few repeat-customers.

We'd note as well that it seems somewhat uneconomical to return the camera to the manufacturer every time it has been used by a customer. Obviously, the manufacturer wants to be able to profit from each 'rental', which it can do if the retail store has to repurchase the camera each time it has been returned - but we'd argue that it would be more logical to allow the store to download the images and initialise / recharge cameras in one step, whilst simultaneously tracking how many times a camera has been reused, and invoicing the retailer based on this figure. This would allow faster turnaround of cameras, ensuring they're available for rental as much as possible, not to mention saving the cost of shipping cameras back and forth.

In all, the system looks promising, but we'd like to see higher-resolution cameras with image review capabilities and even optical zoom lenses, perhaps with a security deposit (plus the fact that the consumer has no way to access the images) ensuring that the more expensive cameras required would return 'home' intact. This, plus provisions to ensure customers have long-term access to reprints, or better still that they receive a copy of their digital 'negatives' on CD, floppy disk or via web download, would in our opinion offer stiff competition to single-use film cameras. We await the results of this initial trial with interest...

Source: Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd.
Thanks to Jerry Sehl / oani.net and digitalcamera.gr.jp for this item!

Original Source Press Release:

New Business Model offers Digital Print System in line with Today's Resource Re-cycling Oriented Society

New Re-usable Digital Camera with Print Service to begin Test Sale Period

Tokyo October 9, 2001---Asahi Optical Co., Ltd. (Headquarters: Tokyo, Itabashi-ku, president Fumio Urano, referred to below as Asahi Optical), ALTECH Co., Ltd. (Headquarters: Tokyo, Shinjuku-ku, president Kazuhisa Yuri, referred to below as ALTECH), and SANYO Electric Co., Ltd. (Headquarters: Osaka, president: Yukinori Kuwano, referred to below as SANYO), announced the joint establishment of a new business model for a digital print system with the goal of entering the digital print market that is projected to see expanded future growth. On October 19, 2001 the "re-usable digital camera" will go on sale for a trial test period.

Japan's domestic market for digital cameras in the year 2000 was 2.95 million units, shipments for the year 2001 are forecasted at 4.7 million units showing continued steady growth (figures according to Japan Photography Device Manufacturing Association). The motive given for the purchase of a digital camera for over 50% of those buying digital cameras today is for 'snap shot use' and photo printing (according to SANYO research). Currently the various types of services offered to take advantage of digital images, as well as the price and service content are still at the trial and error stage.

By combining the three companies strengths, namely Asahi Optical's camera technology, ALTECH's high speed, high picture quality printer technology, and SANYO's Semiconductor Solution creativity have established a business model achieving a user friendly inexpensive, high picture quality digital printer and will begin the trial sale of a re-usable digital camera. The future plan is to further expand this new business line taking advantage of the special characteristics of 'digital', such as network printing and high pixel compatibility.

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