Imaging Resource Publisher Dave Etchells and Senior Editor Shawn Barnett interviewed top Sony executives at PMA 2010. Responding to IR's questions were Senior Vice President and Corporate Executive Masashi 'Tiger' Imamura, and General Manager of Imaging Product Planning Naruhiko Odashima. Read the interview below to learn why back-illuminated sensor technology may make less of a difference in SLRs than some have been expecting. Imamura also revealed for the first time just how soon we can expect to see 3D capture solutions in Sony's still cameras.
Representing Sony Corp. in the conversation were:
Masashi "Tiger" Imamura, Senior Vice President, Corporate Executive, and President of the Personal Imaging & Sound Business Unit
Naruhiko Odashima, General Manager, Imaging Product Planning Department, Product Planning Division 1, Personal Imaging & Sound Business Unit
IR: We were wanting to ask questions about when Sony was going to design mirrorless cameras, and now that's what you announced this morning, and also big questions around audio. But talking about video, HD video has become almost mandatory for consumer cameras, it's a necessary feature. And what many consumers in this country do is take video snap-shots, just a few seconds of video. What we wonder is do they really need HD to do that, and so we wonder do you know from your own surveys, are people actually using HD, or do they switch to SD to save card space? What do you know about people using HD video in your products?
I think it's a value-add to the products. People tend to use compact DSCs [Digital Still Cameras] for daily events, camcorders more for "precious memory" events. But we really don't have the data.
Nobody knows what will happen in the future, but for example in the case of the portable music industry like iPod or networked audio, people more tend to think about the value of being easy to use, and easy for sharing; those kinds of values. Likewise, in the area we are seeing today around blogging, looking at the differences between Handycam and Cyber-shot, people might not be conscious about the [differences in video] quality, rather than being easy to share. So it depends on the customer's needs.
However, recently I am realizing that in the photography industry, the younger generation of people have not had the experience of hearing really good quality sound. People have gotten used to hearing MP3. That's okay, but after hearing the Walkman X-series, for instance, that's really really nice sound quality. Because there are so many digital enhancing technologies in it, and also the noise canceling headphones, the quality makes the younger generation go "Oh; that's quite nice." So unfortunately some of the younger generation don't realize the [improvement in] sound quality. In the same way [people] blogging; that type of customer might not have had the experience of pure HD quality movies yet. So there is an opportunity for us to make the customer understand “wow, that's a stunning picture.”
IR: So it's a little bit of user education.
Imamura: That's right. And also, somebody said that current bandwidth is not good for passing an HD type of bit-rate, but eventually that technology might be available. Also, even with narrow-band, more technology might be able to convert from an HD bitrate to SD bitrate, so it's really a matter of the technology and the timing.
However, our [video] products are devices that capture "precious moments," as we said, like shooting a wedding or baby. All those precious moments cannot be created again. So that's what we propose to the customer: This is a very important moment, why don't you [record at the best quality possible to] take better [video]? After that, many things can be done. Converting to different forms, etc.
IR: That's very interesting. So the issue for the customer is for them to have a clear sense of "This is only going to happen once, so I want to get the best quality possible."
Imamura: The issue is how easy can the product make it for the customer to take the pictures. I believe we still have a lot of things we need to do: Sometimes a product that has a lot of features makes it a bit hard for them to use.
IR: That's one thing we've certainly found on the digicam side just with consumers, even things like scene modes that are supposed to make it very easy to use – people don't seem to use them, they use the green zone and that's as far as they go. So that will certainly be a challenge. But it's interesting to hear the extent to which that's your perspective as well.
When it comes to using a still camera to record video, it seems that autofocus is one of the most significant consumer disconnects. Sony obviously has made camcorders for a long time that can track focus during recording. What do you think the future holds for that with still cameras? How soon will we see still cameras that do a good job of AF during video recording?
Imamura: As you pointed out, current still camera systems focusing is good for still images, but not perfect for movies, but Sony has a lot of knowledge about controlling autofocus in the camcorder.
IR: So, a difference in technology is part of it, how the two different types of products work. So you're saying Sony will be bringing camcorder style AF into the DSCs?
Imamura: We cannot describe the detail yet, but the main direction that I presented today [at Sony's press conference that morning, announcing their SLD camera model], is that the three segments are beginning to merge. It's not just the products themselves and a lot of technology, it's also the combining into one. In this sense, technology that came from the camcorder and technology that came from the still camera will be merged. It's going to realize a lot of new benefits for the customers; that's really what Sony wants to create in the future.
[To stop and paraphrase a bit here, what Imamura seems to be saying is that we can't just look at how still cameras and camcorders behave today, and think of future products as being simply a collection of features from both, with some added technology stirred in. The very process of combining the two functions will strongly affect the final form, perhaps more so than the individual technologies themselves.]
IR: For a long while, camera makers were locked in a "megapixel race," but that thankfully seems to be coming to an end. We wonder, though, whether manufacturers continue to feel pressure from the consumers and the retail channel to keep adding more megapixels. Are retailers saying "This company has 12 megapixels at this price point, can you give us 14?" Do you still see that pressure from them?
Imamura: Put it this way. Unless we, the manufacturer, can provide the easiest way for the customer to create great pictures, the race will be never-ending. So it's kind of a dilemma, whether we're going to present a better value vs. a pixel race. That is the challenge for us.
On the other hand, if we talk about technology development, making the pixel smaller on the imager, requires a lot of new technology development. [The technology that goes into making sensors with high megapixel counts- ed.] doesn't just realize the higher megapixel counts but also higher sensitivity, more compact imager sizes and everything. So, as somebody said, the race was not good for the customers, but on the other hand, good for us to develop the technologies. Do you understand? If the [chip] technologies are advanced, we can utilize this technology not to increase the megapixels, but on the other hand to make the sa me number of pixels more sensitive. So in other words, the race hasn't been a bad thing. But the issue is, how can we make this into a simpler message for the customers? "Hey, this is better quality, this is a better product."
IR: Sony is not only a manufacturer of cameras but also a major image sensor company, and last year your back-illuminated sensors were a significant advance for high ISO with cameras. A few questions about sensors: Can the back-illuminated technology be scaled up to larger chip sizes, like SLR size chips, or are there issues with the support of the chip, or other problems that would prevent scaling it to that size?
Imamura: That's a pretty detailed technical question, but as you may know, back-illuminated technology was developed because of the very small pixel sizes. It's because on the surface of the sensor, a lot of the area is occupied by the interconnect, so the [light-sensitive] area gets very small. This made the engineers think: "How can we make it different, so we can get more area?" In the case of the APS-C or larger imaging sensor, the ratio between the area of the sensor and the peripheral circuits; the light-sensitive part already has a bigger area. So if we made it back-illuminated, there wouldn't be as much advantage as with a smaller sensor.
[Editorial note from Dave: This is a significant point: Back-illuminated technology won't bring nearly as much benefit to APS-C size pixels as it does to the tiny ones in digicams, because the larger APS-C pixels lose a smaller percentage of potential light-sensitive area to interconnects and peripheral circuitry. Disappointing to hear, but obvious when one thinks about it.]
IR: Is back-illuminated technology exclusive to Sony? (What we're really asking is if we see that feature in other manufacturers' cameras, does that mean that it's a Sony sensor, or do other companies make back-illuminated sensor chips?)
Imamura: Other manufacturers have already announced back-illuminated technology, like Fuji, Casio. We can't describe the details of the competitors; even if we knew which camera was using which kind of sensor, but as far as a general comment about the sensor industry, Sony is not the only company to provide a back-illuminated sensor.
IR: Are there any other sensor-level tricks that can be used to get more light sensitivity, or are we really coming to the end of the road with basic device physics? Do you see any more breakthroughs coming, or is it pretty much down to the sensitivity of the silicon, and it's all just processing from here?
Imamura: That's a really difficult question, but developing a new sensor is very "analog" process. All semiconductors require very precise control of the process. There are very many separate "know-hows" involved in achieving the best characteristics of the sensor, so, it's not like digital [a step-wise] evolution like back-illuminated, but purely you know, a matter of day-by-day operation.
IR: Just a matter of tweaking it a bit better and better as you go along?
IR: We were very impressed with Hand-held twilight mode: That was a really dramatic breakthrough in terms of people being able to use cameras in ways they hadn't been able to before. But again, many people never take the camera out of "green" mode. Do you have any sense of how consumers are using hand-held twilight? Is that a popular function that they actually use on a regular basis? [Ed: Hand-held Twilight Mode is a Sony feature whereby the camera snaps several short exposures in rapid succession, then micro-aligns and combines them to add the brightness and reduce the image noise. The result is that users can hand-hold exposures as long as a half-second or so, without blurring from camera shake.]
Imamura: One of the directions that we need to seriously consider is intelligence. Intelligence means the camera detects the scene, or the view, and understand that the customer wants to take a photo like that. Then the camera can automatically control and adjust all settings.
Odashima: This year, we are launching a new camcorder, which has a kind of detection technology. The camcorder knows the circumstance, the situation and how the customer is using it, and it automatically adjusts the settings. So this kind of technology and function already available in our camcorders.
IR: So some of this technology in being able to recognize low-light conditions and more particular subject types is already in Sony camcorders and we can expect to see that migrate to still cameras, just as other features have? - So the camera will be able to say, “oh, they're taking a picture, and it's a night scene, and I've got moving objects, so I need to use hand-held twilight...”
Odashima: The other example is our Party Shot product. So once the camera becomes intelligent, it can detect the subject and control everything. With the Party Shot, all control is done by the camera itself. So as he said, the camera is getting more intelligent. Maybe the camera can do everything, without the customer handling it.
[Ed: Sony's Party Shot is a little robotic picture-taker that works with their DSC-TX1 and DSC-WX1 camera models. You plunk the camera down on it and set it running, and it uses the camera's face detection and Smile Shutter(tm) functions, as well as motion detection and rule-of-thirds composition principle to automatically scan a room and snap photos of people that it finds. We've seen it, it's pretty amazing to watch it work.]
IR: Yeah, I'm so busy lately, that I've been thinking I need to just send my camera on vacation, so it can take the pictures and tell me what a good time I would have had.
Odashima: Yeah, yeah: The camera will be moving and flying around, you don't have to do anything. <laughter>
IR: So taking Sweep Panorama as an example, someday, if you hold down the shutter button and sweep, the camera will sense the motion and just say "oh, it's a panorama," without the user having to make a mode setting first?
Odashima: Yes, that's right.
IR: Some of your high speed cameras go up to 10 frames/second, but some competing models that we had thought were using Sony sensors can shoot 30-40 fps at high resolutions. Can we expect to see similar speeds coming from Sony cameras in the future?
Imamura: Again, we can't respond in detail. As I said earlier today, though, one of our directions for our cameras is to realize the fastest response in their class.
IR: One thing that's been interesting to us with Sony, is that you've been a leader with the high-speed technology, and we've seen it used for things like sweep panorama and hand-held twilight. -- But we haven't really seen a focus from Sony on using it to capture just the right moment. You know, the baby's playing or something or blowing out the birthday candles, where capturing the right instant is important. You know, you take 20 or 30 pictures and then pick exactly the one you want. Do you think we will see that show up as a feature of some kind? (Shawn Barnett: Pre-capture, like Casio's done.)
Odashima: Ah, pre-capture. I'm not sure if you are aware that our new camcorder has a golf-shot. It's very convenient for training, improving the golf swing. It works like this: The player swings, and after the swing, the user presses the capture button. The camcorder can detect the sound of hitting the ball, and the pre-recording is already done at that point. It records 1.5 seconds before the hitting sound, and 0.5 seconds after, so 2 seconds total will be recorded. It records video [30 fps] at HD resolution: This is an example of a pre-recorded application.
IR: High-speed sensor technology: Can that be scaled up to large sensor sizes? Or are there limitations due to things like signals being propagated across the chip. Will we see 10 fps, 30 fps SLRs?
Imamura: It requires a lot of power consumption. When the speed gets that high, it automatically requires higher speed signal processing, which makes for very high TDP [Ed: Total Design Power], and high temperatures. Of course, we should find out the solutions, but this is the dilemma. Not only for Sony, but the other camera manufacturers as well. However as I presented today, we have created the sensor itself, as well as the processing chips. So combining the two chips into one, we are now starting to see benefits.
IR: Ah, by migrating more of the processing to the sensor chip, you can increase speed with less power consumption.
IR: The economy has been very hard this last year. I think imaging maybe did better than a lot of segments, but we're wondering what you think is coming for the next year. Are we seeing a recovery, are we stagnant, are we going to go back in for another dip? What do your projections show?
Imamura: I think there are various factors affecting the industry, whether it expands or decreases. When looking back to the history of digital imaging, the digital still camera industry, back in 2000, it was growing, up, up, and up. But in the years 2005 or 2006, it maybe declined, so people thought, oh it's already getting mature, the penetration is getting high. But after 2006 and 2007, the market was again going up. There were reasons for this, like higher megapixel counts being achieved, and picture quality way exceeding earlier models. Also, there were a lot of new features which couldn't be realized in either film-based cameras, or digital cameras that existed before.
The point is, if we can provide more value for the customers to replace their current still camera, or to otherwise increase the demand, I'm sure the industry will continue growing. One of our proposals [in the earlier press event] today is the interchangeable-lens compact camera: It's purely aimed at the customers who already have a compact camera, and who want to get better pictures, but who think the current DSLR is a little big and difficult to use. This is our proposal. If the manufacturers can offer the customer more value for replacing their current cameras, the industry will recover. It's a must.
The other thing about economies is that if the general economic situation cannot recover to its initial condition after two to three years, people tend to still spend money on things for their daily lives. It's not a good example, but the Treasury of the US thought that people wouldn't want to spend money, because security is the most important thing for them. However, if that makes people stay home more of the time, then more people end up purchasing a TV, DVD player, or home lifestyle equipment. More people tended to make purchases for the family or their relationship with a partner, even though the economy was not getting better.
In this sense, I believe that our business category of capturing personal, precious moments, is everlasting.