Steven Sasson recalls Kodak’s journey to make world’s first digital camera


It was on a cold winter’s day in December 1975 that Steven J. Sasson, who had joined Eastman Kodak Company in 1973, took the first steps to revolutionise the way photos would be taken. It took nearly two decades for the bulky camera that Mr. Sasson had used to record the world’s first digital black and white picture to become one of the most sought after electronic gadgets.

“My vision was to do something different – build a camera with no moving parts,” said Mr. Sasson, who was in Mumbai recently. His goal made him turn to charge coupled device (CCD) to store optical information. “With CCD, no shutter is needed and no film. And mechanical parts are minimised,” he noted.

Grainy picture

The first image that he took was recorded on a digital tape, the size of an audiotape. And it took him nearly 23 seconds to record the image and another 23 seconds to play it on a television. But the final result was an image that was all grainy. The resolution was just 10,000 pixels! This was only to be expected as he had built the prototype using parts that were already available in the market.

“It was very crude and hard to work with,” he recalled. But what in the first place made him take the digital route? “It was actually easy to go the digital route as other people were already working on analogue ones,” he explained. “[I] Took a totally different approach.”

The long delay

Alas, Mr. Sasson’s discovery was never fully capitalised on for many years – Kodak introduced digital cameras for the commercial market only in 1994. Though the company officials refuse to admit it, Kodak faced the same dilemma as Sony. Sony was found napping when Apple Computers introduced the iPod to take the world by storm. If Sony’s decision to not embrace the digital music revolution ahead of others was more to do with the fear that its own music business could suffer from piracy, critics insist that Kodak was reluctant to introduce the digital camera for the commercial market as it would have meant jeopardising its film based photography business.

“There was a lot of tension in the company when I started working on this technology,” recalled Mr. Sasson. And about the delay in bringing the innovation to the people, he said, “most technological innovations take a long time to develop. It is the difference between seeing the first cloud and the clouds that bring the rain.

“Peter Labaziewicz, elaborating on this, insisted that Kodak kept innovating and improving digital cameras. Mr. Labaziewicz is the Director of Innovation and Advanced Development, Digital Capture at Kodak. “We built the 1 mega pixel camera in the mid 1980s for colour cameras and started building digital cameras for special purposes in the late 1980s,” he pointed out. In 1991, a digital camera was built by Kodak for space shuttle programmes.

The latest innovation from Kodak is the V 570, a dual lens digital camera. “Our innovation is driven by customers,” Mr. Labaziewicz said. So in 2003-04 the company went about addressing the key shortcomings of digital cameras – inability to take group photographs, come closer to the objects and the bulky size of cameras. “Our goal was to reduce the size by 80 per cent even after incorporating a wide angle lens and zoom feature,” he said.

But the end product that the company came out with was way below what they had set out to achieve. “We reduced it [the size] by 20-30 per cent. So I stepped back – either we achieve the goal or not come out with the product,” he recounted. According to him, solid-state electronics gave them no excuse for not achieving their goal.

Goal achieved

But reducing the size, they realised, was not possible till such time the wide angle and zoom lenses were combined into one. And the solution – have two lenses; one lens for wide angle and another for zoom. By doing so Kodak achieved 80 per cent reduction in size. The 5 mega-pixel slim camera has a wide-angle lens that has 70 per cent more coverage and 10x optical zoom.

But why only a 5 mega-pixel camera? Do customers not want higher pixel cameras too? “Earlier, the primary factor controlling image quality was the number of pixels. This has plateaued,” Mr. Sasson underlined. “Beyond 5 mega-pixel the usefulness of commercial cameras drops significantly.” Explaining the science behind increasing pixel number and picture quality, Mr. Labaziewicz, said: “The bigger the pixel size, the more photons [light] it can collect. The pixels contain light sensitive photodiodes that convert the incoming photons into an electrical signal. “Even without incoming light, the electrical activity of the sensor itself will generate some signal. This is the electrical noise. If the pixels are smaller and gather less photons relative to the background noise, the signal to noise ratio is smaller and there is more image noise.”

The more the better?

This can be overcome by increasing the number of pixels and reducing their size. “Up to a point, increasing the number of the pixels results in better image quality. “But roughly beyond 5-6 mega pixels in compact camera CCD sizes, the increased noise penalty overcomes any increase in image quality,” he elaborated. “At normal viewing and print sizes, 5 megapixels is more than enough resolution and increasing the resolution any further does not result in much or any perceptible gain in quality, even disregarding the noise issue,” noted Mr. Labaziewicz.

Published in The Hindu on August 24, 2006