Samsung Dishes; We Report
posted Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 8:28 PM EDT
We had the opportunity recently to participate in an industry roundtable with top Korean executives from Samsung. Attending from the industry side were representatives of DP Review, Engadget, Laptop Magazine, and Reviewed.com, as well as Imaging Resource. Samsung executives participating in the roundtable session were:
- Mr. Byungdeok Nam, Senior Vice President, R&D Team, Digital Imaging Business
- Mr. Sunhong Lim, Vice President, Sales & Marketing Team, Digital Imaging Business
- Mr. Seongwoon Kim, Ph.D., Vice President, R&D Team, Digital Imaging Business
The discussion was open and free-ranging, lasting more than an hour, and covering a wide range of subjects, giving insight into Samsung's thinking and development process. (Many thanks to the Samsung executives for making time in their busy schedules to talk with us!)
We've extracted a few snippets from the conversation that might interest our readers, grouped by topic below. Enjoy!
Collaboration in sensor design between camera and sensor groups:
Dave Etchells, Imaging Resource: What does this collaboration look like, between the camera and sensor groups?
Mr. Nam: My division is responsible for the finished product, so we come up with the product specs, and then would do the overall development. However, the sensor development would be done by a sensor technology development team of the semiconductor business division. They give us what they come up with for a sensor design and we look at it and tell them whether the image quality is good enough or whether they need to make improvements. They of course make sensors for other companies as well as our division, but we give them requirements for things like the high-resolution 20 megapixel product, as well as things like lens shading and peripheral CA technology. [Ed note: We didn't have a chance to explore this point in more detail, but it sounds like they're manipulating the microlens design to help with shading (vignetting) and chromatic aberration at the edges of the array.]
Things that they cannot fix with the sensor technology we try to improve using software within the camera. Once we have that, we finish the product and launch it.
Dave Etchells: So the sensor group will actually produce an entire sensor for you; you test it, and then if you want improvements, they make another whole sensor?
Mr. Nam: It usually takes about a year and a half to two years to develop sensors, and we have what are called test vehicles, where on a wafer we can try different samples of sensors with different technologies. Of all these different sensors, we see which is most strong, appropriate or optimal for us, and then we concentrate our development of that technology with that sensor. So in the beginning, we would have many different samples of sensors, and we would then do the evaluation , and decide on one sensor, and then do the development on that sensor.
Dave Etchells: These test vehicles - are they a complete sensor for a camera? Or are they just pieces of sensors, little circuits that you can test for dark current, pattern noise, that sort of thing?
Mr. Nam: They're the whole sensor.
[Ed note: We found this very interesting. Companies are making and testing new sensors all the time; just inserting them into their normal production runs; a few chips on each wafer. It makes sense, but we hadn't realized that versions of new sensors were rolling off production lines on a more or less continual basis.]
In response to a question about whether current cameras are limited by their processing ability, compared to smartphones or other devices:
Mr. Nam: Well, basically, the OS for cameras and the OS for smartphones are different. Right now, phones have more processing power and they have more memory, So semiconductor companies are providing products that are needed by the smartphone companies, but I think that the same goes for cameras. I guess that in a year or two, cameras can have the same processing power or memory as smartphones.
Dave Etchells: So it sounds like an area where you would like to have more processing power, is the type of processing that lets you run an operating system and applications?
Mr. Nam: Well, I think it all depends what the consumers want. As a provider of products, we have to provide things that customers want. But I think that people are very used to using smartphones, so they want things that they have on smartphones on the camera as well: That's what we think we need to provide.
Barnaby Britton, DPR: If you made a camera like the WB150, if you made that as powerful as the Galaxy S II, would it cost a lot more?
Mr. Nam: I think the more processing power you have, the more cost you're going to incur, and the added memory is going to be more costly, as well. So I guess cameras can have the same processing power as smartphones. But, I think we have to strike a balance between the cost and the value. And the product that we came up with to strike that balance is the WB150. If the semiconductor technology continues to develop and the price drops, then I think that there will be more smart cameras; then we can have more processing power and memory as in smartphones.
In response to a question asking whether cameras might some day be supported by contracts, the way cell phones are:
Mr Lim: Actually, we already took a survey, and found that consumers are not willing to pay that kind of monthly amount for a camera because the frequency of the usage is pretty low compared to smartphones, currently. [Ed note: Interesting that they've been thinking whether they might be able to go to a subscription model.] But in the future, maybe this could change. Once the cloud computing era really arrives, a device without connectivity will be meaningless. So in that case, the camera, and very high-end cameras especially, will need real-time connectivity. Actually, the (cellular phone network) operators are looking for these kind of devices, because nowadays, most operators are developing cloud services. But even though there is a cloud, there aren't many devices to connect to that cloud; currently just smartphones and some tablets, maybe. Actually, though, photos and videos are the main traffic generators on mobile networks. So operators are very much interested in the idea of a connected camera right now.
Dave Etchells: Ah. So if you can give them a camera that's got a strong enough reason to use that real-time connection, then they'll subsidize it, because they can sell that connection to the users?
Mr Lim: Yes, yes, yes. These kinds of new business models will appear. Maybe not right now, but definitely in the near future.
Mr. Kim (junior R&D guy): The technology is there today: Whenever we need to do that, we are ready to. We can make a connected camera, but we still need to wait for the right business model, for us to have a reason to create the always-connected camera.
Dave Etchells: You're waiting for the killer app?
Mr. Lim: Right, yes.
Mr. Kim: A killer app, and maybe some price support from the carriers. That will happen fairly soon. It's very difficult for me to say when, but all carriers use that [model for cell phone ownership].
[Ed. note: An interesting concept - Will we see free or very cheap cameras, in exchange for a data contract? Samsung seems to think so, and sooner rather than later.]
Educating the consumer...
TJ Donegan, Reviewed.com: Is there difficulty in educating, say, like an American consumer on - not only the benefits of transferring a photo from their camera to their phone, as opposed to using their phone - but in actually the process of doing it, downloading an app that does it ... or, how are you integrating that in your marketing? Do you feel that an American consumer is going to understand that their camera can do that, or are they going to be stuck in a point-n-shoot model ?
Mr. Lim: Good question. This is brand-new technology, and a brand-new experience, so that's why our prime target consumers are young people. Also, especially, they are very connected; they are well-exposed to new technology like WiFi. So, we are targeting those consumers first, and then we can expand it to be much broader, step by step.
It's a quite interesting thing that even though we haven't communicated heavily to the end users, users are already uploading their experiences to the Internet. So, it's becoming the buzz. "Wow! I can directly upload my photo to the SMS, from the camera? This is a new experience!" So there are many examples of this kind of buzz, and then people are looking to purchase this kind of camera. This is very interesting, in terms of marketing. This is a very interesting experience for us; even without any of the heavy-duty advertising on TV or whatever, because they are connected, the word is getting around.
Dave Etchells: So it becomes viral.
Mr. Lim: Yes, we call it viral marketing. So in order to educate, experience is the key word. So we need to keep developing and providing materials to show and display and demonstrate these functions in stores, yeah? Easily. So we'd like to have some experiential demonstrations in photo shops, or maybe you can display a camera together with a smartphone and a tablet. Once somone uses it, they appreciate it, and they love it, and then finally they buy it. - So experience is the key for education.
On changes in the CSC market
Dave Etchells: When compact system cameras were first introduced, the expectation was it would be point-and-shoot users stepping up and buying them. I think that's somewhat the case in Asia, but in the US, it's been much more enthusiast photographers buying these types of cameras. Is that starting to change now?
Mr. Lim: Even the US market is now changing. According to NPD market data, last year at the end of December, the compact system camera sales grew a lot. The affordable compact system cameras sold particularly well. So I believe that even in this market, US consumers have started to realize the benefit of the compact system camera.Compared with the DSLR, CSCs are clearly light, compact, and easy to use. Once they realize that they offer this kind of benefit, even US consumers will change their buying habits and will buy the compact system camera. Already, the US is becoming a very important CSC market. Actually, we were surprised to see the sales data of last December.
Dave Etchells: So there was a very sharp increase in December.
Mr. Lim: Yes, yes, yes. We didn't expect that kind of jump in sales, but this is a new trend in the US market. Now we think the US market is now one of the biggest in the world, after the Asian market.
Dave Etchells: So it's almost like it hit critical mass; maybe enough people saw friends with the cameras, and they got used to the concept, and now all of a sudden they're catching on.
Mr. Lim: It is driven by many things, but one of the more important things is the very heavy advertising.
Dave Etchells: Oh, everybody's advertising, right?
Mr. Lim: Yes. It educated a lot the consumers; they started to realize the benefit.
Mr. Kim: Another thing is that a lot of customers are quite satisfied with smartphone photo quality - so if they want to buy a camera, they expect something a lot better than that. Maybe that's why they're more interested in having a high-end camera like CSC. There is some opportunity.
Dave Etchells: Do you think the surge in CSCs, in the compact system cameras, has come at the expense of the point-and-shoot cameras, the digicams? Or has it taken market away from the SLRs? Or a little of both?
Mr. Kim: Maybe a little... I don't know, he [Mr. Lim] may need to answer, but to my point of view, it's both.
Will Samsung open up the NX lens mount standard, the way Sony has done with the NEX E-mount? (Question posed by Barnaby Britton, DP Review)
Mr. Nam: In the case of Sony, they opened their standards for the NEX mount lenses one year after the launch of their product. We are not doing that yet, though, because we would like to continue the evolution of our NX mount lenses. One example of this is i-Function, which we think is a pretty unique function. [Ed. note: The i-Function mentioned refers to using the combination of a lens button and its front control ring to control various camera functions.] So, we will continue to upgrade the functions of the lenses, and that is why we are not opening the standards. Once we have it finished and complete, then we will open the standards.
TJ Donegan, Reviewed.com: To that end, do you see a room in the NX lens roadmap for a larger telephoto, longer than 200mm, or a professional-level zoom, much larger? Is that counter to what you want the NX line to be? It seems like 200mm is the hard cap so far - it's the longest you have currently.
Mr. Nam: For the NX system, it is possible to use lenses that are longer than 200mm, and we do have plans to introduce lenses that are longer than that, but I can't comment at this point on when we will be introducing it. But when we talk about the developmental progress in terms of lenses, we're not just talking about magnification or f-numbers - those are just physical aspects - we are also talking about developments in the electronics. Whenever we have a new system improvement, we can download new firmware so that we can use it with the existing systems. So with the NX system, not just the body, but also the lenses of the cameras can be upgraded by downloading firmware - this is why we say that our lenses continue to evolve. Once we [get past that evolution], we will be open and will share that technology.
On the question of whether cameras and smartphones will continue to exist as separate categories or not:
Mr. Nam: We have been studying this a lot. From the smartphone's point of view, it is very slim, very sleek. That's why they are used so easily; every day, every time, people bring this camera with them. By comparison, a camera is pretty big and heavy, so it's difficult to carry to any place, so the frequency of usage is pretty low. How can they be optimized together? - This is the key question. We are researching a lot to develop the perfect product to satisfy different needs and interests.
Mr. Kim: Anyway, the camera and smartphone are two different products. I don't think only one product will exist. I always carry a smartphone, so sometimes I take photos with a smartphone. When I go to some situation I care about, for example when I start a week off with my family trip, I really don't want to take photos with my smartphone. I really want to preserve those kind of photos - then, I always use a camera instead of a smartphone, because the camera has superior photo quality. This has some physical limitation, though. The mobile division tried to put very high-end camera capability in a smartphone, but what happened was that the size got a little bit larger, and no one wanted it anymore. Now, they do not try to do that anymore. So I believe there's [a place for] two different products. They will coexist.
On the issue of cultural differences in product appeal:
Mr. Lim: Nowadays, the taste for products in different countries is getting more similar. I believe this is part of globalization, especially for young consumers, who are very similar to each other, regardless of country. Because they get information through the Internet, they're being influenced a lot from the Western cultures. But there is still some difference: An example is our Dual View and Multi-View models. We're finding that these are very popular in Asian and Latin American countries; much more so than in the US and European countries. It seems that more "emotional" products are more appealing in the Asian countries, while the more technically-oriented products are more appealing to American and other Western consumers. For instance, with the DualView, you can take self-shots very easily, and especially Asian ladies like to do this, with their friends or by themselves. The MultiShot design improves on this, so it is currently the best selling model in Korea now, and in some other Asian countries.