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Rotating Cameras Are Yesterday’s News, But They Shouldn’t Be

By Michael Fisher August 14, 2012, 3:35 pm

Every day across the globe, a familiar scene plays out at festivals, in bars, on boats, on college campuses, and everywhere in between. Close friends, giddy with sober excitement or drunk on fun and whiskey, press their faces together, contort their expressions into ridiculous pouty smiles, and snap a self-portrait with their smartphones. Thousands of times a day this takes place, the pixelated results splattering across Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and every other social medium.

Aside from the irritating side-effect of flooding the internet with pictures of duck-faced pouty lips, this phenomenon is evidence of a larger, sadder truth. With very few exceptions, every one of these photos looks as though it was shot in a fog-filled room, through a strip of matte Scotch tape. That's because front-facing cameras generally tend to be awful.

Taken with a Galaxy S III. Poor white balance and low resolution makes for a mediocre photo, despite high-end FFC and dashingly handsome subject.

There's a solid business reason for that shortcoming. If you're an OEM putting two digital cameras into a tiny piece of hardware like a smartphone, you're going to "focus" your efforts on the primary one. (See what I did there?) The 8-, 12-, 16, or 41-megapixel shooter on the back is where the real action is. Nine times out of ten, that camera is the one that matters. In the eyes of manufacturers, the little front-facing shooter is only going to be used for video calling and as the occasional stand-in for a pocket mirror. So skimping a little by including a cheaper, smaller module up front keeps the cost lower and the engineering simpler.

But ever since modern Android devices and iPhones popularized the inclusion of front-facing cameras, customers have put the additional hardware to use in a major way, and usually for self-portraits. The proliferation of photo-centric apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram has only accelerated this trend, the explosive growth of cellphone photography resulting in a corresponding spike in the use of front-facing cameras. A friend of mine uses the front-side shooter on her Droid 2 fairly regularly for self-portraits; when I told her of its poor quality compared to the main camera, she was surprised. At the risk of sounding the anecdotal-evidence alarm bell, I'd say that many consumers don't realize there's a notable difference in quality between the different cameras on their mobile phones.

These problems persist even in the future.

And, really, this is a "problem" only to the nittiest of the nit-pickers. Just a few years ago, it would have seemed ludicrous to bemoan the low quality of a mobile phone's second camera . A few years before that, complaining about the quality of any mobile phone camera would have seemed persnickety at best.

But to me, the interesting thing about this dual-camera dilemma is that it doesn't need to exist. Manufacturers know how to avoid it. In fact, they were doing so almost ten years ago.

In those heady days of 2003, there were two important truths: the trend of assigning catchy names to mobile phones hadn't yet taken off, and the U.S. was just getting its first taste of cameraphones. Sprint led the initial charge with two of the first such convergence devices to grace American shores, Sanyo's SCP-5300 and Samsung's SPH-A600.

The new-hotness of 2002-2003: the Sanyo 5300, Sanyo 8100, and Samsung A600.

Despite their common clamshell form factor, these devices tackled the problem of self-portrait-taking very differently. Sanyo's approach was the far more conventional, and it went on to become de rigueur on flip phones: the 5300's camera was mounted on the upper portion of the phone, and it was used both for standard and self-portrait photos. When the flip was closed, the external display served as a viewfinder. That view was limited to a tiny, cloudy image on the postage-stamp-sized STN external display, but the photo itself was of the exact same quality as any "normal" shot — because it was taken with the same camera.

That kind of simplicity and adaptability in design is very appealing to me, and no doubt to manufacturers as well. Instead of worrying about installing a second camera just to cover the front side of the device, Sanyo's engineers could focus their efforts on the one and only shooter on the phone ... because it would be doing all the photo-taking, no matter what direction it was oriented.

Using that kind of approach in today's world would be impossible, though. We've mentioned once or twice how much we miss flip phones, but that's not doing anything to bring them back. The big honkin' slabs are here to stay, for a while at least. But that doesn't mean that single-camera smartphones are an impossibility. For proof, look no further than the aforementioned Samsung A600.

The A600, M610, and A900: Samsung’s barrel-camera superstars.

The A600 -also sold under various monikers both stateside and internationally- pioneered an innovative approach to mobile-phone optics. The camera lens was built into the phone's hinge, mounted on a rotating barrel which offered almost a full 180 degrees of movement. The camera could thus be pointed in any direction, without changing the orientation of the phone itself. The A600 offered an additional innovation with its twisting display, eliminating the necessity of dealing with a tiny secondary LCD. Though this display innovation wasn't carried forth into many follow-on devices, the rotating "barrel cam" was, and it became one of the main reasons I stuck with Samsung as my phone-maker of choice.

And lest you think the rotating-camera club was a dumbphones-only institution, allow me to direct your attention to Samsung's i700 PocketPC, the spec beast of yesteryear. It featured no hinge and no flip, but still packed a barrel-cam.

2004-era Michael Fisher wanted so badly to put this in his cargo pockets.

And remember: all this was taking place between six and ten years ago. Implementing a modernized, miniaturized rotating camera into today's smartphones would likely be easier than it was in those days.

Sure, there are pitfalls: modern smartphones are much slimmer and sleeker than their ancestors, with correspondingly less internal space for engineers to fiddle with. The challenges of designing a 2012-edition rotating camera might nullify any simplicity the elimination of a separate front-facing camera would bring.

But just like I argued in a recent piece on durable phones, the issue is choice. Forcing a rotating camera onto every smartphone in the market isn't what I'm advocating; building it into a handful of tablets and smartphones would be enough, just to see if the idea has staying power. Samsung is no stranger to throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks -see the Galaxy Beam for the most recent example- but we don't need to look to the South Korean giant to solve all our problems. Other manufacturers, like Notion Ink, have toyed with the barrel-cam idea on a tablet, and there's no reason the idea can't make the leap (back) to smartphones.

The idea is seductive if you give it some thought. Imagine the utility of taking photos in cramped spaces with a variable-angle camera, or the relief of trading in those grainy, washed-out video calls for full-resolution communication. Or at the very least, think of the duck-faced people of the world. Planet Earth may not be clamoring for more self-portraits, but folks are going to take them anyway. If we have to deal with them, we might as well do so in full resolution.

But seriously, this needs to stop.

Did you ever use a mobile phone or tablet with a rotating camera? Do you miss them too? Or would OEMs have to pry their front-facing cameras from your cold, dead hands? Sound off in the comments below and let us know what you think!

A600/flip phones image source: PhoneScoop

"Duck-face" image source: Know Your Meme


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