Phonecams: Beyond the Hype

November 19th, 2003

“Do I really need a camera attached to my mobile phone? Honestly, isn’t this just a gimmick?”

Lately I’ve fielded those questions many times over from friends and family, and even from other tech people.

Even the phonecam manufacturers don’t seem to have a clue what people will really use these things for, judging from the foolish scenarios they portray in TV commercials. But that’s typical; new technologies are never born fully-formed. Nobody knows how networked cameras will evolve, and nobody knows just how we’ll grow to use them. But special properties of networked cameras have convinced me that these tools won’t be abandoned any time soon. Some of these capabilities haven’t emerged yet but I think they’re all on the way.

Here are five important capabilities that seem unique to networked digital cameras:

1) A photographer can use such a camera to send all her photos to a single, central storage place as she takes them. This eliminates the handling of film, smart cards and other intermediary media. It means that cameras can be smaller and cheaper because they don’t need massive amounts of storage space. It dramatically simplifies problems involving backups, sorting, and after-the-fact annotation. No more rooting through PCs, CDs, servers, drawers and albums to find that great family portrait from last Thanksgiving.

No single firm or agency can or should store and control everybody’s photos. Nobody’s photos should -physically- be stored in just one facility. The media should be backed up and mirrored at multiple sites in case fires, floods or whatnot destroy the data at one site. But as far as the user is concerned, the photos should “live” in one secure spot in cyberspace. You should have just one virtual “place” to search through when seeking your photos, so that you don’t have to worry about inadvertently losing important photos, and so that you don’t have to constantly copy collected photos from one device or place to another.

2) Networked cameras provide the ability to annotate photos as they’re created, or soon afterwards. Such annotation can include written comments from the field to accompany particular photos, but I don’t think people will bother with that in most cases. Other forms of annotation might be more widely used and more important, including:

  • quick one-button thumbs-up/thumbs-down annotations, allowing people to bookmark especially remarkable photos right there on the scene, the way that TiVo allows a user to quickly tag TV shows without interrupting her flow of thought. (See my location-aware thumb rating essay for more about this.) Later, such simple annotations can be combined with contextual information to prove extremely valuable, not only in tracking down desired photos but in conveying and detecting patterns in users’ tastes and preferences.
  • a set of automatic annotations to be tagged to photos on the fly; especially important is the emerging ability to automatically tag a photo with the location where it was taken. (When we reach a critical mass of people posting time-stamped, location-stamped digital photos online, fascinating things will happen; some of them will be wonderful and some of them will be downright spooky. I can go on about this last bit for hours so I’ll leave that tangent for future writings.)
  • Meta-tagging: manual annotations might be applied to whole groups of photos, and not just to a single photo, by allowing the user to specify a command like: “apply this tag to all photos that I take from now on, until I turn the tag off,” or “…until I leave this building.”

    3) Networked cameras allow the capability to publish and share photos online as they’re taken.

    4) Most users usually have their phonecams on hand, just as so many people nowadays usually have a mobile phone on hand. In many ways this is great news: you’ll be able to document all of life’s wonderful and serendipitous happenings; you’ll hardly ever say, “if only I had a camera at hand…” In Japan, where phonecams are old news, teenagers often snap shots for the purpose of enhancing face-to-face conversation. Most such shots are briefly shared via the devices’ small screens and then deleted, never to be sent or stored anywhere. Of course this is bad news too; when everyone carries around networked cameras we’ll all lose some of the privacy that we now enjoy.

    5) Networked cameras provide the ability to transmit photos to audiences without permission from the authorities. These devices rob government officials of their ability to detect and destroy photographic evidence at border crossings. This capability will be especially beneficial in war zones and in police states.

  • 23 Responses to “Phonecams: Beyond the Hype”

    1. comment number 1 by: Chris

      Say hi to Arthur for me.

      What do you use to do your photo-blog?

    2. comment number 2 by: Sean

      For more discussion see Alan Reiter’s post about this essay on Reiter’s Camera Phone Report:

      Chris: right now I’m limping along with MFOP2 (, a free e-mail-based posting service. If I can find the time I want to customize Kablog or Blogplanet so that I can post my photos with fewer steps, build thumbnails on the fly, optimize on the fly and rotate photos on the fly.


    3. comment number 3 by: nutty

      One thing to be aware of with cell phone cameras is that the photo you take is tagged with location information by the phone. You snap the picture and post it to the web and the information about where the photo was taken can be found in the file. Is this good or bad? Certainly would keep the photographer honest about where he shot the picture. No more New York Times Reporters saying they got the photos in the slums of South America when the photo tag says the shot was taken in New Jersey.

    4. comment number 4 by: Sean

      Not necessarily. Whatever location-indication standard is used, it will probably be easy for someone to change or delete a photo’s location tag, just as it’s easy to alter title and artist tags on MP3 files, or timestamps on JPEGs and Word documents.

    5. comment number 5 by: Ryan

      Nice article, Sean. Nutty–actually phonecams are surprisingly bad about automatically including location metadata in the photos they capture. I really wish it were true that all photos would get location info–cell IDs at least–in the JPEG header. It would make it much easier to build some simple first-generation location-based services using phonecams. But the camera makers either haven’t clued in to this, or they want to control the market by making developers pay for access to this sort of metadata–which it is I haven’t yet figured out.

      Sean–I wonder what you think about the coming “media” phones, with videocams, TV tuners, etc… I’m hearing a lot of the same skepticism about these that I heard about phonecams a few years ago. Will the skeptics be proved wrong? Or is there a limit to the features people will embrace on their phones?

    6. comment number 6 by: Sean

      I haven’t paid much attention to the TV tuner phones, because who wants to watch TV on a teeny mobile-phone screen? Maybe that will change when they develop better, cheaper retinal projectors (that beam a TV image directly into your retina so it looks as if a large TV screen is hovering before you in space).

      As for networked videocams: that seems to make more sense.

      But who knows, nobody can really predict these things.

    7. comment number 7 by: Martin

      Well, one interesting thing phone cameras are good for is the battle against crime. I was (pleasantly) surprised to read an article about that kind of thing in the paper last week. They mentioned someone taking a picture of a guy who was breaking into a car, and also a flasher whose picture was ‘in flagrante delicto’! 😉 Nice to have the proof right there, the subject can forget about denying it, and it also takes care of the problem of relatively unreliable descriptions of perpetrators by eye witnesses.

    8. comment number 8 by: Ryan King

      Good point about critical mass coming with the ability to post time stamped, GPS stamped photos. Ideally add a compass heading to the mix.

      Think a giant database of these pics. Enter any set of GPS coordinates, it lists every photo taken in that area available. The database provider charges you for access to shots and passed some of the fee back to the original shooter. Now it’s actually worth my while to take pictures of everything all the time, on the off chance someone will pay for it later.

      Add in some licensing/publishing function to said database provider and we’re really cooking. Now I can get some serious money for taking paparazzi shots shout I get the chance. Or to travel to wierder places and try to pay for my vacation by shooting events. Think rise of the super-stringer freelance blogger.

      It’s almost certainly going to happen and it’s sure going to be fun to watch.

    9. comment number 9 by:

      Ryan, you’ve got it. And once you have this critical mass of time-stamped, location-stamped photos, imagine the other end. You have a search engine where you can specify a time window, and a space (location) window. You can use this to say, for instance, “show me all photos taken between Dec. 1, 2003 and Dec. 15, 2003, on the second floor inside Cafe Strada in Berkeley, California.” Or, “show me all photos taken between 12 pm and 12:45 pm on Dec. 2, 2003, within a quarter-mile radius of Times Square.” If you want a photo of that painting you saw today at the Museum of Modern Art, you can search on that particular room, during the timeframe of the exhibition, then see small thumbnails of all matching photos and zero in on what you want.

      Think of the visualization tools you could create for viewing results! Thumbnails of the resulting images can appear as clusters on a map or on a timeline, and slider controls could allow you to grow or shrink time and space windows on the fly.

      There’s a dark side, too. Who needs to mount surveillance cameras or hire private detectives when the camera-equipped public does the job for you? Stalkers or government agents or paparazzi might find a photo of the person they want to track, then feed it to a search engine with face-recognition capabilities, telling it to “follow” the person by searching forward and backward in time and space for other photos of that person.

      The system might make the task more efficient by recognizing direction of motion in a photo, so if a person is walking north, the search would start by looking forward in time and north in location from the original shot, and back in time and south in location. Such a system might piece together people’s paths of movement and display them on maps. (Don’t worry, computers can’t yet recognize people in photos accurately enough to make this a reality. But they’re getting better at pattern recognition all the time; already systems can pretty effectively recognize individual automobiles. )

    10. comment number 10 by:

      Ryan, your point about compass headings is a good one too; the other day I had a conversation about that with Scott Lederer from Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer sciences department.

      Compass-heading tags would be nice because you could use them to really narrow down your search results to photos including certain stationary objects and landmarks. So if you’d like to see photos of your house over the years, you might search on photos taken in the 500×500-foot area just in front of your driveway, where the camera was facing East (or in whatever direction your house is from the front driveway), over the past 20 years.

      (Again, this depends on a critical mass of photos added by the public to a searchable collection over time, each of which being tagged with location, time and compass-heading information).

      Compass-heading information isn’t nearly as useful as location and time data though. Without compass headings you could still find photos of your house in the example above; you’d just have to sort through a lot of photos taken from your driveway area that face away from the house. But you couldn’t easily find these photos at all unless you had location data.

    11. comment number 11 by: Ryan King

      I’m not sure a heading is going to be a standard feature anytime soon, but it would be very cheap and simple to add.

      To some extent you could interpolate it off changes in the GPS location for free.

    12. comment number 12 by:

      Ryan, you lost me on that one. How can you “interpolate” compass-heading information based on changes in location?

      You can’t assume the photographer’s facing the direction in which he’s traveling. Thinking back to photos I’ve taken while in motion, I think most of them have been facing to the side or to the rear, and NOT in the direction of travel.

    13. comment number 13 by: Ryan King

      Not saying it would work great, but it would be free.

    14. comment number 14 by: John Hovanec

      I live in a small town.

      There are very well known lawyers here who essentiality run the town. They do not like

      people moving here and they control the police.

      I moved here and the police follow me and show

      their arms to me and nobody will help me because

      they say I’m crazy. But if I can start taking pictures of them when they drive by me then at least I can show they drove by me at such and such time.

    15. comment number 15 by: Alec

      I saw you mentioned Compass-heading tags- check out

    16. comment number 16 by: Douglas Galbi

      The history of use of both telephony and photography suggests that demand for both is primarily driven by making sense of presence of friends and family. That relates most directly to your reason 3. But the way that camera phones are currently designed doesn’t facilitate talking and looking at pictures at the same time. Changing phone design may be a key indicator of demand growth.

      See Section V in “Sense in Communication,” at

    17. comment number 17 by: tian

      Personally I think the camphones are excellent. I have used it to document experiments in my lab, as well as witnessing an automobile accident for the police. There was a story couple weeks ago about a little boy escaped from an attempt kidnap and used his camphone to take picture of the suspect’s face as well as his vehicle. Despite the “security” concerns, I think the camphones have done more good than bad.


    18. comment number 18 by: Bill K

      There are advantages in using a camera where you’re not distracted by an endless array of settings on the typical digital camera. Also, I’m perfectly happy with 0.3MP

      My experiments with the Treo 600:

    19. comment number 19 by: Lars

      Interesting thread.. the biggest advantages – at least to me – for the cam-phone are; ‘always with you’ and next to ‘no cost’ compared to film. Flat-rate data price plans do make using the network more reasonable, although I usually shoot at the highest res. to the SD-Memory card to transfer pics onto my (Wi-Fi) laptop anyway..!!! Yes, we have 2meg pixel phones hitting the street here now like this unit from Sharp V601SH;


      I noticed a comment about the TV Tuner Phones also available in Tokyo now. I’d say that (like the cam-phone) it will take a couple of years for people to ‘get it’ and start to build around that function. I remember how people over-seas first thought that a camera on a cell-phone was a gimmick, yet now its starting to penetrate global markets with about 70 million (more) units pegged to sell in 2004, I’ve seen the TV-Phone & it’s pretty cool. Like a Sony WatchMan, you can get a decent picture and since its ‘free’ content I think thats a pretty decent customer value add.

      Consider this; if you had a choice between buying 2 handsets, 1 with the TV-Tuner and 1 without, all things being more or less equal, which one would you buy..?!? I think thats basically the same ‘angle’ with the camera-phones now..!! Just my 2 yen worth.. @_@

    20. comment number 20 by: Sean

      Thanks for the comment Lars. For the reasons listed above, I think there are important benefits that arise when you make a camera a networked camera. These benefits do NOT exist in non-networked cameras, and they don’t exist in standard mobile phones.

      On the other hand, when you add a TV to a mobile phone you don’t get a single new benefit that doesn’t already exist in TVs or in mobile phones. Right? If I’m overlooking such a benefit, clue me in.

      What you do get is a substandard TV with a tiny screen that gives you a headache after five minutes of squinting at it, and a more-expensive phone with a shorter battery life that’s more difficult to use because you have to navigate through TV-related features when attempting to deal with the other features. But I might well be missing something.

    21. comment number 21 by: Lars


      Well, adding a TV-Tuner to the cell-phone does give you the advantage of it being mobile.. 😎

      As I’d said, its like having a Sony Watchman so AFAIK that function doesn’t already exist on mobile phones otherwise.. meaning full frame-rate and content at no cost to users because the TV signal is already being broadcast free over the airwaves. Have you seen one of these units in person yet..?!? I didn’t have to ‘squint’ at the picture any more than looking at a typical still photo taken on cam-phone. Perhaps the Nokia type stick (candy-bar style) screen is too small and low-res. but the clam-shell design with larger QVGA screen that you are holding at less than arms length displays TV images just fine.

      Your point about battery power is valid though. I’m thinking that if nothing else, it should help drive the OEM’s to produce better power sources which would be a benefit to everyone..!!! As for menu navigation while using the TV function, that Sharp V601SH unit displays incoming email or voice calls for you and its one button touch to switch over. As for the unit cost, its about the same as other FOMA 3G handsets for example.

      So again, “all things being more or less equal, which one would you buy..?!?” I think its the same angle that seems to have done well with adding a camera function to the mobile phone, and that we’ll see the same sort of logic apply to TV-Tuners as well. Even if it takes (like the cam-phone) a few years to penetrate the global market..!!!

    22. comment number 22 by: t-t-t-tom

      its all just a hoax ihave no problem wid carrying a camera and a one around wiv me. trousers usually hav mor than 1 pocket.unless…hmmmm… be right back!

    23. comment number 23 by: Maryland Real Estate

      Fantastic blog!

      Maryland Real Estate