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Silicon Film's (e)film cartridge. Courtesy of Silicon Film. SiliconFilm: Back for another try?
(Thursday, September 19, 2002 - 14:42 EDT)

A new backer in the form of Quest Manufacturing Inc. is resurrecting an idea that has until now been the epitome of the word "vaporware" - the (e)film cartridge that promised to bring digital capabilities to a film camera.

First announced by a company called Imagek in early 1998 (our earliest news item about the company dates to April 26th, 98), (e)film cartridges provoked much excitement from a digital imaging community that had no low-cost SLRs, and was only beginning to embrace megapixel resolutions for consumer cameras. After 3 or 4 years of waiting for a single (e)film cartridge to ship, community interest had subsided to background noise - occasionally, a new consumer would hear rumor of (e)film and get excited, until more experienced community members described the many obstacles that (e)film faced.

After a change of name from Imagek to SiliconFilm, and with backing from Irvine Sensors Corp., the company did manage to get some working demonstration units of the (e)film cartridge to trade shows. This was to be about the concept's peak, though, because despite announcing that the product was almost ready for market (and even accepting pre-orders), further stumbling blocks were hit and the concept foundered. FCC certification tests were failed, and although a second attempt saw them passed, the more stringent European tests were still failing when the money ran out. Irvine pulled their backing, and announced that SiliconFilm had ceased operations on September 15th 2001.

Back in February, SiliconFilm's website was listing a new partner - Quest Manufacturing Inc. - and again suggesting that the concept would be back. Now, we see that the SiliconFilm website has been relaunched, and it looks like Quest is attempting to turn around some of the potential problems with (e)film:
  • Resolution: Initially a very low 1.3 megapixels, which looked decidedly dated by the time of SiliconFilm's failure a year ago, this is to be refreshed with the announcement of 4.2 megapixel (2480 x 1684) and 10 megapixel (3875 x 2625) versions.
  • Storage: Initially only 24 images, after which the (e)film cartridge had to be removed from the camera, and either the images offloaded or another (e)film cartridge inserted. Now, a new unit which attaches externally to the base of your camera (presumably via the tripod mount) promises CompactFlash Type-I and Type-II storage with MicroDrive compatibility.
  • File Formats: Initially, the (e)film cartridge would save only RAW data which would then be converted to other formats when images were being transferred to a host PC. Now, SiliconFilm says RAW, 8- and 16-bit TIFF and "visually lossless" (we presume, JPEG) formats will be offered.
  • Image Review, Deletion: Initially there was no provision for an LCD display; since the (e)film cartridge was entirely inside the camera, there was nowhere to put it. Now, the external attachment includes an LCD display for image review, and presumably deletion via the three buttons on the right of the attachment.
  • ISO Rating: Initially fixed (severely limiting photographic possibilities) this will now be variable from 100 to 800, presumably through the same buttons on the attached base.
  • Focal Length Multiplier: Initially a 2.85x multiplier, now a much more acceptable 1.2x for the 4 megapixel version, and 1.11x for the 10 megapixel version.
  • Connectivity: Initially, getting images off the (e)film cartridge could be laborious - either take (e)film out of the camera, put it in the (e)port adapter, then into a laptop PCMCIA slot or the (e)box and connect the (e)box to your PC to get at the image. Now, you can connect the new base unit to your computer via fast USB 2.0 connectivity, and there's also an NTSC / PAL video-out connector as well, for viewing images on a TV.
  • Bulky extra equipment: Initially, you needed to take the (e)port (a protector for the (e)film cartridge, and adapter that let images be read off in a PCMCIA slot) and either a laptop computer with PCMCIA slot or the (e)box storage device with you, if you wanted to offload images. Alternatively you'd have to buy numerous expensive and bulky (e)film cartridges and (e)port protectors, or just take less than 24 photos (including duds) in an outing. Now, you don't need all the extra equipment - just the (as yet unnamed) base - but that still adds bulk to your camera, and will also change how it balances and feels in your hand, so it is a case of swings and roundabouts. Overall this is probably the better of the two options, but it is still far from ideal, judging by the added size and weight of the base and cartridge together (5.35 x 2.25 x 1.48 in. / 136 x 114 x 88.33mm; 1.2 lbs with batteries)
  • No frills: Another one that could be seen either way. Two definite pluses - a playback histogram has been added, as has the ability to zoom into captured images. On the downside, certainly things like video or live histogram (as opposed to playback histogram) won't be possible, as the camera's metering system won't know that it is supposed to hold the shutter open indefinitely - but then that's true of current digital SLRs too. Currently, SiliconFilm doesn't mention some of the other niceties of modern digital cameras that could conceivably be included - things like recording soundbites to store alongside images, changing sharpening, saturation, and the such-like, etc.. Better than the old (e)film concept, but there's still room for more improvement.
We can also see some remaining problems, and some new ones:
  • Price: The low-spec (e)film cartridge was to cost as much as US$700, getting near to the prices of prosumer digital cameras which will compete directly with (e)film. It is difficult to see how the specification could be increased so drastically (particularly the increase in imager size and resolution) without an equally drastic price hike, and with true ground-up digital SLRs costing as little as $2000 now (and likely even less by the time (e)film could reach market) there's likely to be little room for the company to maneuver on pricing
  • Design constraints: The (e)film cartridge is likely easier to break and harder to manufacture than an all-in-one digicam. The design by necessity leaves the sensor out in the open when you remove the cartridge from the camera, and with a larger sensor it is even more likely to get covered in dust, or accidentally damaged, every time the camera is open.
  • Compatibility: SiliconFilm touts support for "Most 35mm SLRs" in its press materials, but the design constraints imposed by different cameras with differing film paths and designs suggest this may not be quite accurate. In fact, the info from SiliconFilm suggests that the design of the cartridge is the same as it was a year ago, in which case only the Nikon F5, N90 and F3, or the Canon EOS 1N, EOS A2 and EOS A5 are compatible. Hardly "most 35mm SLRs"; even though these are all very common cameras, there are dozens of other common models which likely won't be compatible. Also, whilst unlikely, should camera manufacturers feel that (e)film threatens their digital SLRs, they could easily make small changes to their film cameras that would prevent (e)film from working even with new units of these models.
  • Image Framing: Admittedly this is a problem that existing digital SLRs face as well, but since a film camera is not designed to keep the shutter open whilst framing a picture, the LCD display cannot be used for live framing).
  • Can It "Hammer In Tent-Pegs"? Many existing digital SLRs are extremely rugged, to the point that we've heard photojournalists joke that they could use their cameras to hammer in tent-pegs. Water- and dust-proof seals and all-metal bodies ensure that the camera will stand up to whatever beating required to get the photo - but with a large box hanging from the tripod mount to offer an LCD display and store images, the camera is unlikely to be able to handle water or dust. Will photographers be confident that this extra piece of hardware will stand up to the rigors of day-to-day shooting?
At the end of the day, it is difficult to tell where SiliconFilm will go in the future. The design has improved, to be sure, but it is obviously little more than concept right now - for example the press materials don't even show a woodblock mockup of the new base, just a quick computer rendering alongside a photo of a camera. By the time SiliconFilm reaches market, it could find everybody else has already left them behind and taken the market elsewhere - something the company is sorely familiar with from past experience.

Equally, SiliconFilm will have to challenge the gut instinct it has bred in potential customers - perhaps including your humble news editor - that after 5 years of missed deadlines, unfulfilled promises and corporate failure, (e)film is too little, too late; a once-promising concept that has been overtaken by a market where consumer digicams are cheaply available that offer high resolutions, long zoom lenses, friendly interfaces and numerous features film cameras could only dream of.

Our verdict: don't hold your breath, but watch this space. There's probably about even odds that SiliconFilm's latest offering could be no more than another vapor trail, but there's also the potential for a genuinely interesting and different concept which just might still have a potential market...

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