Nikon CES 2016 executive interview: Nikon redefines their mandate and charts a new path
posted Wednesday, January 6, 2016 at 12:01 PM EST
The Consumer Electronics Show isn't typically an event where you'd expect to hear about the launch of a high-end DSLR, let alone two of them, but this year Nikon went even further, surprising us with several very interesting products -- including not one but two pro-friendly DSLRs, and their revelatory entry into the action camera market. (Haven't seen the news yet? You'll want to read our live blog of the press event for the full story!)
Traditionally, announcements like these would have been saved for the CP+ show in Japan that's coming late next month, but Nikon astutely realized that CES was an unparalleled opportunity to reach the world's assembled technology press, so they chose to officially announce the much-anticipated Nikon D5 here, despite the show's strong consumer orientation. The D5's development had been hinted at in a very terse "development" announcement late last year, but this was the first public airing of the camera's very impressive specs.
That was just the start of the revelations, though, as they followed the D5's official announcement with the surprise debut of the Nikon D500, the long-awaited followup to 2007's D300, a camera beloved by enthusiasts and pros alike. As if that wasn't already enough, Nikon also made their dramatic entry into the action camera market, launching the eyecatching KeyMission 360, a unique ruggedized camera capable of capturing full 360-degree spherical panoramic video at 4K resolution.
Clearly, CES 2016 was a big deal for Nikon, so we were very pleased to be able to sit down with a couple of the company's senior executives to discuss their new products and their capabilities, and the their vision for the future. On hand to offer their unique insights to IR publisher and founder Dave Etchells were Mr. Nobuyoshi Gokyu, Senior Vice President, General Manager, Imaging Business Unit and Mr. Tetsuya Yamamoto, Corporate Vice President, Sector Manager, Development Sector, Imaging Business Unit. Gokyu san has overall responsibility for Nikon's imaging business, while Yamamoto san is the person most responsible for their cameras technical direction and evolution. With three major announcements having taken place just an hour before, it would be something of an understatement to say that we found no shortage of topics for discussion!
Note that Gokyu-san and Yamamoto-san both spoke through a very capable interpreter, so their comments are doubtless paraphrased somewhat. Also, while we've tried to properly identify their individual responses, quality issues with our recording mean we might have incorrectly attributed some of their remarks. Our apologies in advance for this, but we're comfortable that the account below is a faithful rendition of the substance of our conversation.
Without any further ado, let's get to the interview!
Dave Etchells/Imaging Resource: First, thank you very much for your time and also congratulations on your announcements today. We're very impressed by them, and also excited by Nikon's future prospects. To my mind, one of the most important announcements here was your plans for connectivity. We believe that connectivity is extremely important for the camera industry, and that the "holy grail" or ultimate goal has been for images to simply appear on your smart device after you capture them without any action by the user. Is this in fact how SnapBridge will work?
Tetsuya Yamamoto/Nikon Corp.: So I may have said this to you before, but you know cameras are for shooting images -- and we capture images, but we think that it's not just that. It's also about the joy of seeing these photos and sharing them. So ultimately, the goal right now in terms of connectivity is to improve the quality of communication through the method of photography [by making it easier to view and share images].
DE: Does the user need to do anything for the pictures to appear on the phone? Or just take the pictures, and send them to Facebook? Is it immediate, or do you need to transfer them?
TY: It will be essentially automatic in the very near future. Currently you do need to go through a dedicated application, which is SnapBridge.
DE: It's no secret that the camera business has been in decline for years now, including even the interchangeable-lens market. Do you believe that always-on connectivity could halt or even reverse that trend?
Nobuyoshi Gokyu/Nikon Corp.: We definitely would like to make that happen!
DE: *laughs* Yes, yes. And you said that SnapBridge would appear across almost all Nikon products going forward. I assume that means consumer point-and-shoot cameras also?
DE: This question is more technical. Is the Bluetooth Low Energy connection used simply to establish a Wi-Fi connection, or does the data transfer over BLE?
TY: BLE has the role of pairing the connectivity and that's it, although you can transfer low-resolution images with Bluetooth. But for larger resolutions, you'd have to go through the wireless, which the device will automatically select.
DE: So the small thumbnail images that transfer automatically, those could go via BLE?
DE: Good. Part of my question or my interest was knowing if it will work equally well with iOS -- you know, Apple devices -- and Android. Because I believe in working with some Wi-Fi-connected products, the current iOS can only connect to one Wi-Fi node at a time, and so if my phone is connected to the Wi-Fi and then I want to transfer from the camera, I have to close down the Wi-Fi to let it transfer. Will you need to do that with SnapBridge? Or will SnapBridge automatically shut down the existing Wi-Fi connection to connect to the camera's Wi-Fi?
TY: There's no direct answer, because we cannot disclose the technical details, but we are talking with Apple to enhance user benefits.
DE: Mmm, yes. That was another question I had that you maybe can't talk about, but it seems like the camera makers have always been at the mercy of the device makers, because they control the radio and they don't so much want other people on the radio. But it sounds like maybe you could say that you are working strategically with device makers to bridge that gap?
TY: Yes or no.
DE: Yes or no. *laughter* Maybe yes or maybe no.
It was mentioned in the presentation that you have software coming for managing the images once they're on the smart device, for both iOS and Android, and that these would be "SnapBridge applications." That sounds like there's a general framework for software to access. Will there be a software API (Application Programming Interface) for other developers to access, to integrate Nikon imaging into their own applications? And if so, do you have any thoughts for what those kinds of applications those might be?
TY: Not now, yet, but we do have plans to launch an API, because we know that it's very important to utilize the openness of the Internet. So currently, SnapBridge is just one application dedicated to Nikon, just for us, but in the future, we will think of opening it up through methods like an API. By the way, we can talk about the current camera's control API, which we do supply a Software Development Kit for.
DE: That's across your whole line, there's a software API?
DE: So the KeyMission 360 is an exciting departure for Nikon, and you're focusing on 360-degree VR (Virtual Reality) as a key differentiator. Ricoh has a 360-degree camera, but it's not rugged. As you broaden your line to more conventional models, though, how do you plan to overcome the enormous momentum and market share of GoPro? What will be your overall strategy in that market?
NG: It might be from the customer's perspective that we're supposed to be competing with GoPro, head-to-head, in the same zone. But we would like to make extra effort to target our communication to adventurous people who want to enjoy imaging with this camera. Depending on the way we communicate our passion, that will determine whether we compete head-to-head with GoPro, or not. And we do believe that with the 360-degree feature, we can provide something new to the world.
Of course, we know that the conventional compact camera is quite stagnant right now, so hopefully this new camera, KeyMission 360, will [bring] new action into this relatively stagnant market. (As we always do, as the leading-position player in the DSLRs and the compact cameras.) We had a concept when we developed our KeyMission 360, the D5 and the D500, that these are devices as an imager, which makes people see what cannot be seen. The KeyMission 360 is precisely that kind of technology, that enables people to see what they cannot have seen without this camera.
TY: So from here on is my personal opinion about the positioning of our camera and GoPro. First of all, GoPro, I believe, is relatively in the sports camera segment, within the total "action" umbrella. But we believe that our camera isn't just a sports camera; it can be for various usages, for any action, including consumers’ usages, or as a utility for them. So what will they need? What will they demand? The first thing that came to our mind was 360[-degree coverage], what can be seen that cannot be seen or captured without this camera, which includes the movie function.
DE: Yes, so someone would not buy a GoPro to take on their vacation just to take pictures, but if they're going to Rome or Paris, they might take a KeyMission 360 to take 360-degree pictures. So it enables a very different use case.
DE: A technical question about the image in the files. There was a question in the Q&A session at the press event about the resolution, and it said it was 4K UHD. Does the camera record more than 4K in 360, and then when you are viewing you can choose 4K? Is that the operation?
TY: It's achieved by adding the 180[-degree pictures together]. So, in that sense, putting the two pictures together might be requiring more than 4K pixels, but in theory, it's just two images stuck together to make a 4K.
DE: So it might be a few more pixels to stitch. Yeah. What new technologies did you have to develop to enable the KeyMission 360?
TY: I would say three things; three new technologies. Number one is the small-sized optics that can handle 4K resolution. Number two is the stitching of the image processing technology. Number three would be the compact body, [making the body more compact] and achieving low energy too, of course.
DE: Mentioning energy, what will the battery life be when recording?
TY: Not disclosed yet.
DE: Related to battery life, is it -- I'm sorry, this is probably in the specs -- but is it an interchangeable battery?
TY: It's not interchangeable. It's built in and you can recharge. Like a smartphone.
DE: This is maybe, I guess, maybe on strategy a little bit. A great deal of your presentation focused -- sorry for the pun -- on the AF capabilities of the D5 and D500. And in particular, compared them against mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless models have made great strides in AF in recent years, and the on-sensor phase detect elements have helped overcome some of the limitations, but they do still lag behind. Do you believe this will always be the case or could things like the on-chip phase-detect some day close the gap with SLRs?
NG: The reason why first of all we emphasized the mirrorless comparison in our presentation is because we focused on use-cases, but technology-wise, I mean, there are some use-cases that will not allow mirrorless to close the gap with mirrored cameras like ours. And again, going back to the reason why we focused on this use case in today's presentation is because we specifically chose the use case of where someone is trying to track the subject in motion constantly through the viewfinder, which is [relatively speaking] a very good comparison with mirrorless. And so in the near future, no we do not think that mirrorless can close the gap when it comes to the use case that we emphasized today.
DE: The rapidly moving subjects…
NG: Tracking constantly; tracking subjects in motion.
DE: It seems to us, I've felt for a while that one of the most important technologies -- even for consumers -- is autofocus; that people, we tend to think [high-performance] autofocus is for sports photographers. But you know, just a parent taking a picture of their child playing soccer or you know, a young family with a toddler… That still requires very good autofocus. To what extent can the very sophisticated autofocus of the D5 and D500 be brought down over time into more entry-level cameras? You know, someday will there be a D3300 but with that good an autofocus [system]?
TY: First of all, I agree with your comment that autofocus is very important when it comes to taking photos. It's not just image quality. Going forward, in agreement with what you've said, we do plan to horizontally deploy this focusing technology into all of our cameras, but not exactly as sophisticated as the D5 and D500, but we will trickle it [the autofocusing technology] down.
DE: This is also a little bit on focus, but turning to 4K video, that's a very important feature these days and as was mentioned, it was part of the reason the D500 is only coming out now. When recording video, though, autofocus is restricted to contrast detection. Nikon sensors at this point don't have on-chip phase detect elements. What is your strategy for providing good autofocus during video recording, and how do you view video strategically as part of your product line?
NG: We would like to continue to support video -- including 4K -- because we know that for the photo-shooting world, video is now required as well. We must remember, the Nikon 1 does do phase detection on the image sensor, so that [technology] we are developing, although the part you mentioned about this current video is true. It is restricted to the contrast AF. But regardless of which direction we take, we know that the key point which becomes important is the depth of focus. So we are working on both technologies, sensor phase detection and also the contrast autofocus plus alpha.
[Ed. Note: We believe the comment about depth of focus related to the need for precise AF in videos too. We're not quite sure what was meant by the reference to contrast detection autofocus "plus alpha".]
DE: So sensor-based phase detect may come to higher-end models in the future at some point?
NG: We have not set a limitation on whether it will be high-end or not.
DE: *laughs* Yes, I understand.
We're almost out of time. Just a very brief question, in the presentation the D500 was described as an enthusiast APS-C DSLR. My impression of the D300 and D300s was always that they were more professional products. Were they in fact more popular with enthusiasts, or will the D500 be priced to appeal more to enthusiasts than the D300 did?
NG: Yes [they were more popular with enthusiasts], and therefore we have targeted enthusiasts [with the new model].
DE: Will the D500 be priced at a lower point so it would appeal more to enthusiasts?
NG: Let us work on that a little bit more because we have time between the announcement of today and actual launch. We think we deserve to price it well if the product is good, let us think.
DE: Yes, I understand, more time, so you don't need to decide now.
I think we are actually about of time now, so we'll conclude, despite having a few more questions. Thank you both once again for making time for us in your busy schedules, and best wishes for great success with your new product directions!)
(Both): Thank you!