The most important camera of the year?

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posted Monday, June 8, 2015 at 4:39 PM EDT

Camera models come and go, but real game-changers are few and far between. Have we already seen the biggest game-changer for 2015? And will it truly change the game or just be a footnote in history?

I still have a lot of material to write up from my trip to Japan last February, but I didn't want to let this particular piece languish any longer...

By far one of the most intriguing products I saw at last February's CP+ show in Yokohama, Japan was the Olympus AIR A01 hacker-friendly camera module. I think our coverage back on January 10, 2015 was the first English-language report on it, well ahead of its official press announcement at CP+. Back then, it was called the OPC or Open Platform Camera.

Sony started the whole wireless-camera-module market with their fixed-lens QX10 and QX100 fixed-lens products, adding updated QX30 fixed-lens and QX1 interchangeable-lens models late last year. While Sony now has an interchangeable-lens QX product on the market, Olympus has taken the concept a good bit further than Sony has. 

 

 
Here's the Olympus AIR A01 in-hand, with the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 EZ zoom lens attached. The lens is retracted (it extends automatically when the camera is powered on), but the "body-cap" 15mm is even thinner than this lens in its retracted state. The whole package is incredibly small, when you consider you're getting a full Micro Four Thirds camera, with battery, memory card, and both USB and Wi-Fi connectivity in the bargain!

The idea is still the same, a bare-bones camera and lens assembly, connecting via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to a smartphone, and using the smartphone's big LCD screen and touch-interface to control the camera. While Sony does now have both an interchangeable-lens model and SDK available, it looks to me like Olympus' SDK allows much more extensive camera control. The full SDK for both iOS and Android is available online. If you want to experiment with the system but don't have an AIR of your own yet, the SDK includes a simulator for the AIR itself. The Olympus AIR also has the two threaded hard-mounts on the sites of the body, and Olympus has published full design files defining the camera's physical attributes and in particular the mounting flange on the camera's rear. From what I can see, hackers wanting to integrate the QX cameras into drones or robots have to purchase and hack apart a Sony mount accessory intended for cell phones to attach the QX models. With the Olympus AIR, you can use the provided design files to add a mount to anything you want, and 3D-print a suitable attachment. (Or, for a more rugged mount, design your system with attachment points to mate with the threaded hard-points on the sides of the AIR.)

 

 
As you can see in this cutaway view, the Olympus AIR's components are definitely tightly packed! It's hard to see anywhere that it could have been made much smaller. It uses a combination of die-cast aluminum and stainless steel for its body, with the steel being used to provide added structural strength in areas that need to be both thin and strong.

Olympus has also published detailed information on the AIR's physical design, which includes a rear mounting flange for attaching it to external devices (in the simplest case, a smartphone case with a mating mounting flange on it), and two metal-threaded holes, providing a more robust attachment.

 
Back when we first learned of the AIR, I took advantage of the published 3D design files to "print" a copy of it on my 3D printer. Olympus had a 3D printer constantly in use in their CP+ booth, printing out samples of a smartphone case with a built-in mounting flange for the AIR.
 
Here's an Olympus staff member, holding one of the smartphone cases, hot off the printer.



 

This is huge.

Never before has a mainstream camera company so completely and officially opened their products to programmers, experimenters, hackers and system-builders. The Olympus AIR A01 isn't just another camera, it's a tiny, Lego-brick camera-in-a-can, ready to be plugged into any system you can dream up. It's also an unusually capable, remotely-controllable, high-quality camera system for event or wildlife photographers, videographers, or anyone else who needs to tuck a camera away somewhere and take pictures beyond arm's reach.

It will take a little while for the Olympus AIR to make its way out in to the market and for people to begin tinkering with it. Once that happens, though, I predict an explosion of creativity and innovation around the AIR. No need for kinda-officially-accepted hack kits; the full camera capability is open and supported by the manufacturer.

 

 
Showing remote connectivity, Olympus had a spycam trolley-thing running back and forth on a curved track about 12-15 feet above the AIR display area. Visitors could control the pan and tilt angle of the camera as it trundled back and forth via a joystick interface at table-level.


 
 
Here's an AIR selfie, taken by the spycam in the previous image. One of the Olympus staff was holding his finger on the button on the right side of the frame, to pause the back and forth motion of the carriage, so I could take a picture while it was pointed at me. I found the joystick control a little twitchy to operate, but it was just a proof of concept system, and I'm not exactly a skilled video game player :-0

Then there's the angle that other companies can build the AIR into their own products. It bears noting that leading drone maker DJI joined the Four Thirds alliance, the announcement coinciding with that of the AIR itself. Weighing only 147 grams, and the "body-cap" 15mm lens weighing only 22 grams, what better choice for high-quality aerial photos? Suddenly, consumer-grade quadcopters can carry cameras capable of DSLR-grade image quality. Then there are companies relying on machine vision for production-line QC and other applications. Here they have a camera that's designed to be easily integrated into other systems.

 
This was a pretty slick, if totally simple gadget: It's a "Macroscope!" Combine the AIR with Olympus' excellent (especially for the money) 60mm f/2.8 macro lens, and you can get in really close on subjects! The 60mm macro can focus down to a 1:1 reproduction ratio, which in the case of a Four Thirds sensor is an area of just 17.3 x 13mm. Compared to a 1:1 macro lens on a full-frame 35mm camera (which would have a minimum coverage area of 36 x 24mm, and you've got 2x the magnification. (With the AIR's 16-megapixel sensor, that works out to about 70,800 pixels per square mm!)

The Olympus AIR's first appearance was via the OPC Hack & Make project in Japan, which was where we first learned about it. Olympus officially announced it at the annual CP+ photo trade show in early February, and went on sale in Japan in mid-March. I was told at the time that it would eventually be coming to other countries, but so far, no announcement has been made. It seemed clear, though, that the plan was to eventually sell and support it worldwide. While no plans or pricing has been announced for the US, the AIR is currently selling on the Olympus Japan website for ¥36,504 (about $290 US as of this writing) for the body unit alone, or ¥53,784 (about $428 US) with a compact 14-42mm kit lens that both telescopes and zooms electronically (making it perfect for systems involving computer control). That's a pretty amazing deal for this level of image quality, in a computer-controllable camera.

 
This was by far the coolest AIR-based gadget on display, but I'm pretty sure it was just a conceptual mockup. Still, it gives you an idea of the sort of things people might do with the AIR. This rig combines an AIR with Olympus' excellent 40-150mm f/2.8 tele zoom, plus a 1.4x converter, for an equivalent focal length range of 112 - 420mm at f/4. The thing on top is the EE-1 Dot Sight, a new Olympus product that was also announced at CP+. It's showing on www.getolympus.com and major retailers as available in the US, but on pre-order status for US$129.99. There's an angled mount on the back for a smartphone to provide a live viewfinder display and control interface, and (here's the conceptual part), shooting controls are also integrated into the hand grip on the right side. It's not a product yet, but is entirely possible, given the Olympus AIR's open software interface.

The bottom line - stay tuned!

Ultimately, only time will tell what impact the Olympus AIR will have on the photography business, but it certainly opens a whole new territory for hackers, developers, and anyone who needs a tiny, remotely-operated camera module with interchangeable lenses and high quality images. We don't know yet when it will appear in the US market, but were told informally that it would be sometime in 2015. Given that we're half way through the year now, maybe it'll be soon.

Stay tuned, you can bet we'll have full information and test images as soon as we can get our hands on a production sample!

(What do you think? The Olympus AIR obviously isn't a replacement for your trusty PEN or EM-series body, but what about special applications, where you want to set up and operate an unobtrusive camera remotely? Nature photography? Event photography? Any other application ideas? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!)
 

 
For a closing shot, here's a nod to Olympus history. It's an acrylic PEN body, with the AIR mounted inside, with an internal lever connecting the shutter button on top of the PEN part to the shutter button on the AIR. It was gorgeous, but unfortunately not terribly practical, because in order to recess the AIR's body into the PEN shell and not have ugly gaps or tricky levers inside, the sliding latch that would release the AIR from the mating bayonet mount was buried inside the assembly. To remove the AIR (for instance, to change the battery or access the USB jack), you had to disassemble the whole body. It sure was pretty, though!