Canon’s incredible Expo 2015: Amazing technology, but where’s photography going?

by Dave Etchells

posted Monday, September 14, 2015 at 4:54 PM EDT


Every five years, Canon puts on a single-company trade show they call the Canon Expo. This year's was the third I'd attended, and it's incredible to see the growth and development that's taken place in the ten years since my first.

A look back at Canon Expo 2005

To give you some idea of how much things have changed, among the technologies that were featured in Canon Expo 2005 were a WiFi-equipped PowerShot, and a fast (compared to what had been seen thus far) face tracking and smile detection algorithm. Once bleeding-edge, these capabilities are now entirely commonplace.

It's also interesting to see technologies that were demonstrated there that never made it to the real world as products, including a battery-replacing fuel cell and a gorgeous display technology called SED. They also had a demo of OLED display technology back then, a technology that still seems to be struggling to displace LCDs.

Photography is just the tip of the iceberg

Canon Expo 2005 was all about photography or very closely-related businesses (like displays). This year, photography was just a small part, although it received plenty of love in the form of a mock baseball field and banks of Canon cameras with beefy L-series lenses attached.

While the periodic live-action shows of baseball players provided good subjects for sampling Canon SLRs and lenses, the stadium set was itself an impressive imaging display. The backdrop was composited from more than 800 50-megapixel images, shot with an EOS 5DS and Mark II 100-400mm lens, then printed on an ImagePrograf 9400 printer as 28 panels, each 60 inches wide.The level of detail was pretty amazing, as you can see from the wide shot above and the detail crop, showing fans in the stands. Even allowing for pixel overlap, this was probably a couple of gigapixels of imagery.

Walking the Expo floor was honestly a little mind-boggling, with everything from retina scanners to roll-fed inkjet-based "digital presses" blasting out full-color printing at hundreds of feet per minute. Digital cinema was a major focus, including 8K cameras and monitors, as was bleeding-edge video surveillance technology (more than a little spooky, to be honest).

Just as 4K technology debuted at Canon Expo 2010, 8K was prominent at Expo 2015. The rig above provides nominally "portable" 8K recording, with the 8K raw data being split between four Odyssey 7Q+ 4K-capable recorders from Convergent Design. (It seems that each recorder is responsible for one quadrant of the full image.) It's a staggering amount of data, when you consider that each frame is roughly 32 megapixels in size, and there are 30 of them flying by every second. We'll have more on this in a separate article...

Imaging tech was the common thread through all of it; Canon remains at heart an imaging company, and has suffered through the smartphone revolution along with its competitors. Canon has managed to maintain its overall business volume despite the downturn, though, by relentlessly investing in R&D (8.3% of net sales in 2014), producing the extraordinary technological breadth on display at Canon Expo.

Canon's made a big move into video surveillance equipment, with the acquisition of Milestone Systems A/S last year and Axis Communications in a nearly $3 billion deal in 2015. This is a system architecture schematic of a video tracking system that was frankly a little scary. We'll post a separate story on it shortly, but suffice to say for now that your steps can be tracked in far more detail than you probably expect, in an increasing number of cities.

Canon's Chairman and CEO, Mr. Fujio Mitarai was the leader behind all of this, enjoying near-legendary status for having taken a debt-ridden and foundering company twenty years ago and turning it into a global technology powerhouse. (Canon has consistently been the number three most prolific filer of US patents for years now.) Mr. Mitarai's keynote speech kicked off the Expo last Wednesday afternoon.

Canon's near-legendary Chairman and CEO Mr. Fujio Mitarai delivered the conference keynote Wednesday afternoon. We were a slightly disappointed photography didn't receive more attention than it did.

Where is Canon going, and where does photo fit in?

With all the diversification, we've wondered where conventional photography fits into the picture, and looking back over my notes from Mr. Mitarai's speech, the answer is more evident by how little he said than by how much. Other than noting the impact smartphones have had on point & shoot camera sales, and the importance of image sharing, the only real mention of cameras per se was of the Cinema EOS line.

The big buzz before Expo 2015 opened was Canon's announcement of a development model of a 250-megapixel image sensor. With 250 megapixels crammed onto an APS-H sized chip -- a format midway between APS-C and full-frame, with a 1.3x crop factor -- the pixels were closer in size to those in point & shoot cameras than typical SLRs. The resolution truly was amazing, though. The early status of this effort is visible in the form of the very lab-looking anodized aluminum housing seen here. Still, at Expo 2010 there were a lot of samples of a 50-megapixel sensor, and the 5DS/5DSR appeared this year with that resolution. Does that mean we'll see a camera product with 250-megapixel resolution by 2020? Stay tuned...

This is a little disappointing to me as a photographer, because I can see the incredible depth of Canon's technological prowess, and wish they could apply just a little more of it to photography. On the other hand, considering the overall scale of Canon, Inc. -- Canon's 2014 net sales were almost four times those of Nikon, for instance -- what's left over after other R&D investments is doubtless still substantial.

While cameras and lenses didn't figure too prominently in Mr. Mitarai's speech, it's clear that Canon isn't letting up any on development in this area. One drool-worthy lens on display was a prototype of a 600mm f/4 DO BR lens. DO stands for Diffractive Optics (think Fresnel lenses), while BR stands for Blue-spectrum Refractive. The latter is a new technology first seen in the recently-announced 35mm f/1.4L II, and promises to almost completely eliminate chromatic aberration and color fringing. The 600mm f/4 was just amazingly (!) small for its combination of focal length and aperture.

What I did hear from Mr. Mitarai was an awareness of just how fundamentally the overall technology landscape is changing. He said two things in particular that stuck with me (apologies in advance for my paraphrasing here): "The Internet of Things isn't in the future, it's here today" and "What makes a smart device smart? An image sensor and the data it generates." I think this will prove to be a clue to his strategy over the next five years. Apart from the dwindling world of point & shoot cameras, Canon's products have never been what you'd call mass-market. I think Mr. Mitarai sees the Internet of Things and ubiquitous image-aware devices as a trend Canon can ride for long-term growth.

The lighting was absolutely terrible for taking photos of it, but a display explained a bit about how Canon's new BR lens technology works. We'll explain more separately, but basically, BR optics work exactly opposite to Fluorite and ED glass, in that they bend blue light rays more than green or red. This gives lens designers another tool for managing chromatic aberration.

So where does this leave Canon and photography? I'd have been more concerned by Mr. Mitarai's keynote were it not for an interview I had the following day with Mr. Masaya Maeda, the Managing Director and Chief Executive of Canon's Image Communication Products Operations. Stay tuned for that; we need to get it transcribed, edited, and posted, but I can promise there'll be some titillating tidbits of interest to IR readers there :-)