It's been a bad day (please don't take a picture)

Jan. 1, 2004
For years, the consumer market has had distorted value in the image-processing market.

For years, the consumer market has had distorted value in the image-processing market.

by Andy Wilson
[email protected]

Before the holiday season, I was asked by Kathy Bush,Vision Systems Design associate publisher, and Judy Leger, eastern regional sales manager, about cameras. In particular, both of these women wanted to purchase a digital camera and asked me for recommendations.

I approached the subject with some trepidation, recommending an EOS-1 from Canon (—a wonderful single-lens reflex (SLR) camera with interchangeable lenses, 8-frame/s capability, and a 4.15 million-pixel CCD sensor that is 28.7 × 19.1 mm with 11.5 × 11.5 µm square pixels. With this CCD sensor, the lens' focal-length factor is only 1.3x, requiring less adjustment and compensation for lens focal length to get the results that you desire.

This camera is excellent and has won many awards. So I recommended it. When I explained why this wonderful camera would cost approximately $8000 (without a lens), however, I was met with derisory jeers.

"What kind of person on Earth would pay more than $5000 for a digital camera?" uttered Ms. Bush. Ms. Leger was equally unimpressed. Then, I found out what they were looking for—something that costs around $300. Having put a lot of effort into deciding that the Canon EOS-1 was the best camera in what turned out to be what wasn't their price/performance range, I was, of course, upset.

"Oh, you want a toy camera," I retorted. But they still didn't get the message. After trying to explain CCD vs. CMOS imagers, line pairs/mm, focal-length magnification factors, noninterchangeable lenses, and other pseudoesoteric stuff, I gave up. They only had $300. A sad state of affairs for someone who supposedly takes "photographs."

The final insult came from one of Ms. Bush's so-called "expert friends," who made the statement that "3 Mpixels is all that you will ever need." I was flabbergasted. I left the subject there. No doubt they both went to the nearest Circuit City and bought a consumer-grade 3-Mpixel digital camera that might (if you are really lucky) produce a reasonable 8 × 10-in. print.

Consumer-market impact

What's really worrisome here, however, are not the trials and tribulations of Ms. Bush and Ms. Leger. It's something far worse. For years, the consumer market has had an almighty impact on the image-processing market. Whether it's the low cost of video-converter ICs used in broadcast applications, the impact of computer architectures (such as PCI and in future PCI Express), or the availability of nearly "free" operating systems such as Linux, everyone, it seems, is looking for something for nothing. And those new to the industry should be aware of that.

Although it's easy to say "you get what you pay for," the reality is that you should only pay for what you need. Still, to build an imaging system takes more than a cheap broadcast lens coupled to a low-cost camera. Indeed, in some metrology systems, the lens itself may cost thousands of dollars.

Any engineering manager will understand this phenomenon. But if your boss happens to be one of those people that visit Circuit City on a regular basis, he or she may regard the cost of your design as outlandish. Unfortunately, that other old hackneyed expression also comes to the fore: "The proof is in the pudding." And if your pudding uses technology that is based on cost alone, then your product will not be up to par.

Luckily, engineers, as always, have physics and mathematics on their side. But it's only a lesson learned the hard way. After my boss starts questioning the low-quality "digital" images that her $300 camera produces, she will have to upgrade. Maybe she will learn by her mistakes and buy a Canon EOS-1. But I doubt it. Hopefully, the blame for this decision will be cast on her "expert friend" who said that 3 Mpixels is all that you need to obtain a good image. But I also doubt that.

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