Disruptive technology: Digital Cameras

As a geek and engineer, I love disruptive technologies. Disruptive technologies are what makes being an engineer worthwhile, at least for me, because they are the ones that change society forever. That, and often the repercussions are quite interesting. Nobody thinks of the wild and crazy things that will happen because of technology until much later.

I doubt that the multitude of 1-900 number services was on inventor’s minds when they started building a telephone system, for example.

Lately, I realized just how interesting of a disruptive technology digital cameras were.

It’s rather interesting. CCDs can piggy-back on the advancements of semiconductor technology, so every time they get better at stereolithography in general, they can make better image sensors for cameras. This means that the amount of circuitry required for a complete digital camera is shrinking at some rate proportional to Moore’s Law. This means that you can make some extremely small image sensors that fit in small cases.

Now, human culture has been obsessed with recording images forever. This goes all of the way back to cave art. Digital cameras are the latest evolution of this. Before the time from picture to viewing was at least a few hours and generally weeks before you could get around to dropping by the local film developer. Now, you don’t even need to bother with that. It’s instant, without all of the troubles of Polaroid film.

This leads to people who didn’t bother with a film camera buying a digital camera. This also means that it’s much easier to use yourself as a model. This makes erotic photography accessible to more people, because now you don’t need to worry about the developer refusing to develop your pictures and/or keeping a copy for his/her personal entertainment. There’s no cost of experimentation, so art photography becomes much more fun. Plus, the large color display/viewfinder is very conducive to allowing people to experiment with exposure and focus on a point-and-shoot form factor, which is very heartwarming for me.

What’s happening is that, because a digital camera is an inherently small proposition, especially for one that’s not really good, you can stick it into a larger object. Say, for example a cell phone or PDA. Most people do not normally have the presence of mind to keep a camera with them. But you do generally leave home carrying your PDA and/or cell phone.

A kid thwarted a kidnapper lately. Not only that, but he had a camera phone and the presence of mind to take pictures of the kidnapper and his car. The kidnapper was arrested the next day. A modern mother won’t necessarily tell her son “Honey, take you camera to school with you so that you can take pictures of any strange kidnappers on the way.” But since instant communication is becoming a part of our society, her kid will probably by default carry a phone with him all of the time.

This presence of digital cameras is going to continue. Now, it’s not a rare occurrence for somebody to have a camera or a videocamera handy when somebody’s being arrested, when somebody’s being assassinated, or when a natural disaster strikes. The next time there’s a shooting while there’s a motorcade, there will be enough people snapping pictures on their digital cameras to make a QTVR panorama.

The neat part about this is the furthering of the weblog aesthete. We’ll have another source of personal, man-on-the-street information when stuff happens.

There’s also fun negative effects. People are scared about peeping-toms taking their camera-phones into the locker rooms and taking pictures. This sort of thing is going to give everybody Austin Powers-like ability to take pictures with their microcamera in support of espionage. However, I think this is actually a more understated threat that won’t prove to be as big of a problem as one would think. For one, people who are determined to do espionage or locker-room photos generally equip themselves with a real spycam that is even more hidden. And, for another, once everybody gets the wind of cameraphones, if somebody’s pointing their cellphone at you while you are in the midst of changing into something a little more comfortable, you are probably going to get pissed and make them stop.

And the fun part there is that there’s no equivalent to the “Give me your roll of film so I can grab the film strip out and expose it all”. So it’s either, “Sit here with me and prove that you have deleted all of the photos” or it’s a case of “I do hope that you purchased the product replacement plan on your phone because it’s about to get intimate with my foot.” I know that I’d chose the second, because it’s more likely to result in the assurance of the destruction of the pictures.

The other fun part is that distribution of digital images is so much simpler than distribution of pictures. With digital pictures, you can just attach a JPEG and email it. There’s no generation loss. No doubles pictures or reprints — you just email it to everybody who was there, or put it up on your webpage.

Some interesting points on what hasn’t happened, also. A videophone replacing the telephone still hasn’t happened yet. The Sony Mavica model of writing to CD-Rs or Floppies ended up being a dead end, instead making the Flash RAM cards intended for PDAs and Laptops (but generally never used much for either) a cheap commodity item. The prosumer/professional camera companies have yet to figure out if the best option is to make the image sensor the same size as film or if the best option is to make a different set of interchangeable lenses for digital SLRs (Although the screw-on lenses did brisk business when the first decent prosumer point-and-shoot digital camera came out).

But overall, there’s lots of interesting side-effects from the development of digital cameras. Of course, there’s much that still has to play out.