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Peering through the viewfinder
October 2002

Meredith Poor started programming in high school on 8K Datapoint 2200s around 1971. Most of his work now is focused on business applications software, typically using SQL-Server, MS Office, and IIS.

Workday mornings are best spent sitting cross-legged on the recliner with a mug of hot tea and the day’s Wall Street Journal.  This is the best vantage for reviewing sonograms and other family portraits.

The current digital camera is finished.  Never mind the new imaging technology that captures color as accurately as 35mm film.  This goes way beyond that.  It makes you appear a lot smarter than you actually are.

Digital Camera II has the following: GPS, JPEG 2000 encoding, audio playback, and an image analysis engine.  Some versions of these look like binoculars, since they take stereo pictures.  Others are like the current ‘night vision’ goggles, they can photograph in the infrared, or in extremely low light conditions (what we would normally consider as moonless nights).

The purpose of the GPS is to combine the picture with it’s exact location on Earth and a precise time of capture.  Other camera settings, such as shutter speed, focal depth, and so forth are also recorded.

You take a picture of the Grand Canyon from a particularly popular outlook, and hundreds of others do likewise at different times and dates.  All of you publish these pictures on Web sites, with the GPS and camera settings intact.  Search engines are able to locate all pictures taken from this location in the general direction of the canyon, and can then create a movie montage of the view from that outlook over months, years, or decades.  This is interesting when watching forests, glaciers, or other natural processes that evolve slowly.  The JPEG 2000 format stores GPS and setting data combined with the picture. 

Note:  The JPEG committee is working on a JPEG 2000 specification now.  Their Webmaster, answering my query about the GPS coordinates, indicates that one file format [EXIF] already supports it.  The specification may provide for a ‘general’ labeling scheme, where files can be saved with any number of text strings, put there from the original point of capture or later by editing tools.

The audio playback gives you a running narrative of the things you are photographing. You aim the camera at Notre Dame in Paris and shoot.  The ‘Paris Guided Tour’ flash memory card first looks up the general location of your shot, finding it in proximity to a famous landmark.  Assuming you have your headphones on, it begins to play out a description of the building, including stories, history, architectural features, purpose, and so forth.  If you’re traveling through the lower Mississippi valley, you can trigger this output without taking a picture, just listen as you drive through areas of historical interest.

The image analysis extender slot is what makes you into Einstein. You photograph a tree, which is recorded into flash memory as usual.  The image analysis engine then parses the image, finding that the picture is of a 100 year old oak tree, and certain parts of the tree are infested with a particularly notorious pest.  The summary of this information is written out to another file in the same flash memory module.  At this point, you have at least a hint that something is wrong with your tree, expertise you acquired without hiring someone to come look.

This can be taken a bit farther, in that the analysis software can direct you to a closer viewpoint, where you take another picture.  In the more distant snapshot, the analysis engine was only able to identify something that seemed out of order, as you ‘home in’ on a particular region it gets progressively more precise about what is wrong.

This idea can be expanded in a number of dimensions: identifying specimens of various animal and plant species; identifying rare vehicles, aircraft, or boats; estimating the area of a surface that needs to be painted; or even hinting to the photographer setting and angle changes that will improve color balance or reduce glare.  Particular ‘expert’ modules are downloaded from respective Web sites for $19.99 cheap, not including the cost of re-programmable media.

The combination of historical narrative (particularly local historical narrative), taxonomic classifications, and instructional walk-throughs creates a vast opportunity space for content creators.  If you are an expert on horses you are able to ‘can’ that expertise and sell it to digital camera users the world over.  Same goes for building repair estimating systems, collectible identification systems, ‘bird watching’, and feedback driven instruction.  If a book has been published on the topic, this is where it can be installed as a real time system, and all that knowledge can be tested against a real world recognition system.

The camera market as it is currently constituted is saturated, so prices have been dropping precipitously and resolutions are now, at five megapixels plus, excessive for all but the professional.  Five million pixels is roughly an 1800 by 2700 pixel array.  The human eye cannot resolve dot features that are smaller than 400 dots per inch, so at this pixel density the output is 4.5" x 6.75".  An 8" x 10" portrait, using this rule, requires a 3200 x 4000 pixel imaging element (12.8 megapixels) and 36 megabytes to store one snapshot.  A generator is helpful to provide enough power to the camera so that it can finish recording the image to flash memory.

A whole bunch of people you never heard of can now ‘get in your face’.  The Texas A&M professor who is an expert in fungi makes up an Internet download so that people in various parts of the world can identify what’s growing on their tree in their backyard.  When the application can tell it’s a fungus but can’t tell which one it is, the user is invited to send the picture back to A&M, and the professor can figure out whether there’s something out there no one has seen before.  If this is true, he can name it after you, or your prodigy child or geographical region if you’re not into becoming a permanent part of the botanical catalog.

Some of the information providers have ulterior motives.  If you have a ‘yard care’ expert in your camera and it sees brown patches in your yard, someone will be at your door in about ten minutes to sell you something.  How exactly they were notified isn’t clear, since you didn’t hook the camera up to your PC and there’s no wireless... oops.

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