Q: What motivated the idea of adding cameras to mobile phones? How and where did the trend start?
A: When you think about it, it’s a very natural evolution. Mobile phones are all about communication. Voice and text messages can only go so far in relaying information. As the saying goes, “a picture says more than a thousand words”. Actually, I may not agree fully on that statement, but often a picture can convey information much more effectively than words or text.
Philippe Kahn is generally attributed with inventing the mobile phone camera in 1997, although one should perhaps note that his invention was a camera accessory for mobile phones. Sharp was the first company to develop a mobile phone with a digital camera integrated in 2000. At this time it was popular amongst youths in Japan to use photo machines, similar to common ID photo machines, but aimed at printing “fun” pictures. The quality of these prints were rather low, but they were still very popular and available nearly everywhere.
The first cameraphones were rather expensive and aimed at a more “mature” group, but the image quality was rather poor and the resolution low. So the high-tech buyers were disappointed in them. But the youths, who were used to the lower quality of the photo prints, didn’t mind much and soon they were popular in this demographic group for which they weren’t originally intended.
Even though the success of cameraphones in Japan can be attributed to that it’s a country where new and advanced tech is adopted early, I don’t think that’s necessarily the only reason. Cameraphones have been a success worldwide with very little variations. I think it’s more attributed to the basic appeal of images, of how they can be used to capture a moment. Mobile phones have two big advantages over digital cameras, and that is that people normally always carry one so they’re always at hand when something happens that you want to record. The second advantage is that the mobile phone is of course first and foremost an communications device, so it’s possible to send your pictures or videos to friends as soon as you’ve recorded them.
Q: Video recording requires instantaneous processing of enormous amounts of information, how does SonyEricsson overcome this obstacle on such a small unit?
A: The W900i has a dedicated chip that allows for recording and playback of 30fps QVGA video. It does make the W900i a little more expensive, but it also gave it an edge that few competitors could rival at the time it was released on the market.
Q: Can you explain the technical elements of the phone of the specific Sony Ericsson W900i, that was used to shoot SMS SUGAR MAN? Both video and audio?
A: Sorry, no. But we do have white papers available that covers the technical aspects in general terms.
Q: To the best of my knowledge, at the time of filming Smssugarman, the Sonyericsson w900i was the first mobile phone camera to feature adjustable/auto focus. How did you achieve that?
A: Well, that’s one example of when we’ve had great help of one of our mother companies – Sony has a long experience in digital cameras. It’s definitely an advantage that they are able to provide us with a lot of technology and insight in that area.
Q: Can you describe the optical part of the camera? The choice of lens size and glass quality?
A: I’m afraid that’s outside my area of expertise. We have an dedicated optics team that are responsible for the camera and lens so I’m not directly involved in that.
Q: Can you describe briefly the compression (H263) and recording format that you chose to use in the W900i (frame rate, file size, compatibility, etc.)
A: H263 is a low-bitrate encoding that was originally developed for video conferencing, but later was found to be suitable for video in phonecams. The file format, .3gp is a standard that is supported by all the market’s big phone manufacturers and operators. Part of it’s purpose is to ensure compatibility, so that a video recorded in one mobile phone can be sent and viewed in another regardless of manufacturer or net.
Q: Most phones do not record at 30 fps. The Sony Ericsson W900i does. Why did you go for such a fps design?
A: Besides being an Walkman-branded product and thus audio-focused, the W900i was also created with the intent of giving an (at the time it was released) unparallelled imaging experience that could do the large 2.2 inch display justice. It was to that end that the camera components were chosen. Like I mentioned before, the W900i makes use of a dedicated chip for encoding and decoding video for better image quality.
Q: Today, most editing software come with codecs used in mobile phones video recordings. Does Sonyericsson collaborate with post production software creators such as Final Cut, Avid or Adobe?
A: Yes. For example, current Sony Ericsson camera phones ship with PC software from Adobe for editing and organizing photos. We don’t include any specific video editing software right now though – or maybe I should add, “as far as I know”, because we produce a lot of phone models, and in different parts of the world, and I’m not personally involved in all of them.
Our application planners are constantly talking to partners, potential partners and other interesting third-party developers to see if there are interesting software we could include, and also to help them support (for example) the codecs and formats we use in our phones for better compatibility.
And of course, some of the larger operators supply their own customized software packages.
Q: LG already have a 5 mega pixel camera out. What significant improvements in terms of the quality of the optics used and picture resolution are you planning in the near future?
A: That’s a sensitive area, so I can’t mention any specifics. We are looking into a number of interesting techniques and hardware.
In more general terms, you can see that the mega pixel race is still ongoing. You mentioned the 5 Mega pixel LG phone, but Samsung have a 10 Mega pixel phone that is sold in Korea.
Also, camphones with optical zoom are starting to appear, which is nice although it does require more space for the camera lens in the phones. I’ve also seen that several vendors employ various real-time or post processing image filters to help improve image quality.
Q: Most of the design is around amateur users. Have you or will you be looking at professional users in the future?
A: We have a wide product segment – from basic phones that are mostly for talking and sending SMS as well as advanced smartphones that are more like mobile computers and are aimed mainly for business professionals. Cameraphones are available on nearly that whole spectrum, and how advanced they are varies depending on the price range and whether or not they’re mainly aimed for imaging use or not.
Still, the vast majority of our customers are amateurs users and that is something we must take into account when designing the products. And as a result, it’s mostly also that kind of people we perform studies and product tests on, since they’re usually chosen to be representative for the overall market.
That said, I have occasionally consulted professionals and semi-professionals when doing the design. I think it’s them that has has the best potential to give me insight into the problems, advantages/disadvantages and workarounds that they need to consider on a daily basis.
Q: Seeing that there is a growing use of mobile phones in professional image recording what channels do you have available for professional users/cinematographers/filmmakers to communicate with you, give feedback or get help?
A: Aside from our normal support functions such as call centers and webpages, we don’t have any forum specifically for professional filmmakers.
Q: In relation to the above question how can you create a forum where filmmakers collaborate and interact with independent developers to design applets and modify the recording settings on the phones?
Q: Is the video recording software of the W900i and its predecessors open to modifications – such as manual aperture control, gain and effects?
A: On the W900i, no. But in our later models the camera can be controlled by Java programs, so it’s fully possible to develop your own customized camera interface and controls, given that you have the programming skill. More information is available at: http://developer.sonyericsson.com/site/global/techsupport/tipstrickscode/java/p_camera_control_jsr234_jp7phones.jsp
And since the Java interfaces is constantly being updated and extended, I dare say we can expect a lot more control over the camera to be added in the future.
Q: Do you think that in future models the camera part of the phone and especially its optics will work as a detachable unit, so that users could use different lenses with the camera?
A: Right now I don’t think that’s very likely. It is a little too specialized use case, and generally people aren’t too keen about having detachable parts on their phones since they’re apt to be lost.
I still wouldn’t rule it out entirely though, and there might be solutions that circumvents the problems. For instance, Kodak recently released a compact digital camera with two lenses – one normal and one for wide angle shots.
Q: What is your vision of cellphones as viewing platforms for movies and mobile TV?
A: Well, first of all I think it’s important to understand that viewing a movie or tv on a mobile phone is a new way of experiencing media. It is not done in the comfort of your home – or at a cinema. Occasionally people might want to view a full lenght movie or a longer tv-show – for example on a longer train trip. But the main use case for viewing media in a mobile phone is as a short timekiller. Most operators and tv-producers are starting to realize that content needs to be formatted – and produced – specially for the smaller screen. In a way, it is perhaps more similar to teather than movies in that the actors need to make sure gestures and expressions are very visible (or audible).
Another thing to note is that much of what is called Mobile TV today is actually streamed media, which generally has a rather low quality since it’s highly compressed and this affects the viewing experience. “True” Mobile TV, DVB-H, is broadcast much like ordinary TV, which allows for better quality and higher framerate. In recent tests conducted in Stockholm, it became evident that people actually viewed Mobile TV for longer periods than was previously expected – 15 minutes in average.
Q: Can you comment on the revolutionary idea of users being in control of the production and distribution of their own mobile content?
A: Wow, that’s not an easy question to answer shortly. The success of such websites as YouTube has proven that the need for people to express themselves by moving pictures are almost as big as that for still pictures. And not to forget Podcasts and video blog sites as well as sites devoted to fanfilms. And these are just a few of the ways basically anyone with the time and interest can publish their own works.
It is also interesting to note that the costs for equipment needed for producing at least near-professional-quality movies or shorts have dropped to price ranges that amateurs can afford. You can even find free alternatives that in many aspects are on par with professional software. Two examples that comes to mind is Jashaka (editing and effects system) and Blender (3D modeling and rendering), both of which are open projects.
Q: Many short films and user generated content have been shot with Mobile Phones. Is this the first feature film to be shot using mobile phones as the cameras?
A: I’ve seen a music videos shot with cameraphones (SonyEricsson K750i phones actually) – and films including short sequences shot with cameraphones – but to the best of my knowledge SMS Sugar Man is the first feature film shot entirely with cameraphones.
Q: The phone has become a universal tool, with the camera as an integral part of it. How did you approach the design of the phone with cinematography in mind, bearing in mind that it was shot in December 2005?
A: To be quite honest, cinematography wasn’t our first priority when designing the W900i. Our main concerns was that it should be easy to record a video and to send it. But nowdays, almost all our cameraphones has an video editing application integrated called VideoDJ. With it you can do some basic editing, like cutting, mixing different clips together, adding text and sound et cetera.
Q: What tests etc did you undertake whilst designing the camera?
A: At Sony Ericsson we employ a user centered design philosophy. In essence, we design the interface, test the design on real users in our usability lab and then iterate the design according to the feedback. In parallell to this the technical teams conduct their tests on the hard- and software, such as the camera optics, the interface responsiveness et cetera. It’s a always ongoing process that continues even between projects.
Q: And where do you want to evolve to, what is the future of recording sound and picture on phones?
A: I don’t expect we’ll ever be truly able to compete with professional camera or video recorders, because unlike those devices a mobile phone is not dedicated to a single task (recording video or taking pictures), so we always will have to make compromises in the design. For example, phones are expected to be as small and light as possible, but it is an advantage for a camera to have a little more weight and size, since it makes it steadier to handle.
But image resolution and quality will inevitably increase, as well as FPS and overall capabilities.
We can certainly compete with small compact cameras. Like I’ve mentioned previously, two big advantages of mobile phones is that you always carry them with you – so why bring a second camera? And the possibility to instantly send your pictures and videos to your friends that makes it more than just a camera, but also a communication device. Or even publish on-line if you like to.
Q: Do you think SMS SUGAR MAN will revolutionize the future of filmmaking, and if so, in what way?
A: I think that SMS SUGAR MAN is a pioneering effort that is important since it proves what is possible to achieve if you just dare to do something a little different, hopefully leading the way for others to follow. Time will tell, but it could very well be the start of a wave of new indie films.
On an more artistic level, I do admire the way you’ve managed to make use of the limitations of the medium and turn them into advantages. From what I’ve seen of it, SMS SUGAR MAN has a very distinct look and feel to it.
Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications
Joakim works as an interaction designer at Sony Ericsson, and is responsible for the usability – or, in other words, the usefulness and ease-of-use – and design of the camera interface. He spends a lot of time thinking about how to make the camera phones easier to use and how to best add new features and functions.