The Case For Cameras On Tablets

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We’ve all been there: the concert, the beautiful sunset, the stock-car race, the Star Trek convention (what?). The setting is beautiful, or the lighting is amazing, or the lead singer is about to break your heart, to see that star, smashing his perfectly-good guitar. The opportunity for a great photo has presented itself, and the guy in front of you decides to seize it … with his tablet camera.

Now, everyone, stop rushing to this dude’s defense. Yes, it’s super-judgmental to hate on tablet photographers, and yes we’ve all committed the sin at some point ourselves. But taking a photo with a tablet carries with it an implied acceptance of the scorn you deserve. It’s about as socially acceptable as taking your phone off your ear to put the mic directly below your chin every time you want to speak. Or un-ironically using a fanny pack if you’re under the age of 60. In fact, yeah, let’s go with that: tablet cameras are the fanny-packs of mobile.

fannygun2

Make fun of my bag again, punk.

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Until now, scorn heaped upon tablet photographers has been two-fold: it’s not just that they look stupid; it’s that they look stupid and they aren’t even getting a good picture as compensation. Tablet cameras have historically fallen far behind their smartphone counterparts in terms of quality. Now, though, with the introduction of higher-end camera hardware on devices like the ASUS Transformer Prime and the new iPad, the game is changing. You’re still going to look like a moron snapping pics with your tablet, but now, the brave souls who don’t care what others think of them will come away from the experience with respectable photos, and even 1080p videos if they so choose.

As tablets penetrate more deeply into our lives, taking on more of the duties historically reserved for notebooks and netbooks, the integrated cameras once considered an afterthought or indulgence are becoming more and more essential to the experience. Here’s a few reasons tablet cameras are a good idea.

Video Calling

Front-facing cameras on tablets have never drawn the same amount of eye-rolling from the public as rear-facing units, and for good reason: they’ve got one purpose, and it’s a pretty cool one. Video calling, whether it’s via Skype or FaceTime or some other protocol, is one of those novelty experiences that reminds us we’re in the future. And it’s even useful at times. The applications for consumers desiring video communication are as endless as imagination allows.

The rear-facing (primary) camera can also get in on the fun, as it allows for less-cumbersome image sharing. “Let me show you exactly how to make my chili recipe,” says the homebound dad to his son at college, flipping from front-facing to primary camera to show the onions going into the pot. Then later: “Mom, I’m going to show you exactly how to post photos to Facebook, but first – check out all this snow we’re getting.” Cut to shot of an eight-foot drift outside a dorm window. Fade to white over laughter. End of vanilla FaceTime commercial.

Then there are more practical scenarios in niche corners of the professional world, where video calling is essential so the project engineer can see in real-time the valve that failed, or whatever. Video calling is awesome, and front-facing cameras have essentially become a requirement as more people realize it.

The Best Camera Is The One You Have With You

At the moment, some of the use cases above are still better served by true videoconferencing, or notebook-based webcams, but if you’re in the field (or kitchen), sometimes you’re more likely to have your tablet with you than your computer. This is exactly how the first camera-equipped mobile phones were sold. Their image resolution ranged from 0.1 to 0.3MP, with fixed-focus, plastic lenses: to call the resulting photos atrocious would be a compliment. But they were marketed as a means to capture quick shots in situations where carrying a full-sized camera was impractical. And despite the predictable put-downs from the naysayers, camera phones became a huge success. Some are even starting to replace basic point-and-shoot cameras.

camera phone

Pfft. This’ll never catch on.

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Tablets are a slightly different story, being larger by their very nature and therefore less portable and convenient than a mobile phone … but as they become more popular, they will increasingly become “the camera you have with you.” No, it’s not the best tool for the job, but the optics are getting good enough to act as a quick-and-dirty stand-in for your mobile phone camera in a pinch. And while most would still call a 10-inch viewfinder overkill, it’s probably not bad news for the huge portion of the population with poor eyesight.

Non-Photo Applications

Even though augmented-reality apps like Layar haven’t yet taken off in the big way some predicted they would, the revolution is young yet. The integration of camera technology with other sensors to create a usable, navigable virtual world is amazing. It’s one thing to be able to pull up a map of your current location on your tablet screen; it’s quite another to hold that screen in front of you and see locations you’ve searched for overlaid on the world the camera is taking in.

LAYAR TAB

Pictured: the future.

There’s also apps like Email ‘n Walk which seek to stem the tide of forehead collisions caused by inattentive pedestrian texters. Apps like this superimpose the feed from the back-mounted camera over the email’s compose frame, allowing users to see what’s behind their device as they type. While this requires the user to hold his device in the air in front of him in as stupid-looking a manner as the tablet photographer, it’s still an innovative use of the on-board technology.

Finally, in a natural evolution of the never-really-popular “business card scanning mode” found on some high-end camera phones years ago, Google has incorporated an interesting feature into some Android tablets. Users can take a photo of a text-heavy document and immediately upload it to Google Docs, where OCR technology instantly converts the words in the image to editable text.

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Imagine how accurate it’d be if I’d framed the shot right.

Cameras on tablets, then, are here to stay. As OEMs continue improving their camera offerings, and as developers continue to find innovative ways of leveraging that power, the tablet experience is only going to grow richer. Soon, the days of camera-less slate computers will seem archaic, and your digs at tablet photographers will be as hip as Scott Baio. So get them in now, while there’s still time to be snarky.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!