Cameras Go Digital a Frame at a Time

The world may be going digital, but photography is moving there at freeze-frame time.

Old-fashioned film-based cameras still outperform their digital counterparts. And while digital camcorders have already taken more than half the market in Japan, their $2,000-plus price tags keep them out of the mainstream in the United States. It's inevitable that cameras will become miniature computers eventually, but it's not at all clear when photography will make the jump.

Which is what's so intriguing about Hitachi's MPEGCam. For two weeks in Europe, I played with this unique device alongside a traditional 35-millimeter camera. Of all the digital photography devices out there, it offers the clearest glimpse yet of what an image-recording computer might look like.

One of its most impressive features is its storage capacity. It can hold 3,000 still images. Or you can take 1,000 photos and add 10 seconds of sound to each frame. Or you can use it like a camcorder. The storage capacity isn't as great with moving pictures - only about 20 minutes.

Another plus for the Hitachi camera is flexibility. You can mix and match still pictures and video, add sound clips when you want. My traditional 35-millimeter camera did only one thing. And, since it's an older model, it didn't even offer zoom capability. The Hitachi does.

After using the camera, I'm convinced consumers will eventually demand that flexibility. Tourists won't tote two pieces of equipment. At the consumer level, the camera and camcorder will merge into one.

Another impressive feature about the Hitachi is the way information flows easily to the computer. The camera records still images in a computer standard called JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) and video in another computer-friendly format known as MPEG1 (Motion Picture Experts Group 1). And, because the images are recorded directly on a PC card - a storage device that fits into most notebook computers - the transfer process is simple. An internal device is also available for computers that don't have a PC-card slot.

Most consumers probably won't buy the unit because it's still expensive (starting at $2,000) and its image quality doesn't match that of other camcorders. Prices will drop considerably as Hitachi releases new versions that record video at a higher standard, says Greg Vanderlip, Hitachi's sales manager for multimedia products. But other manufacturers doubt consumers are ready for such a computer-like camera. "It's a unique and novel technology," says Greg Nole, a regional training manager with Sony. But "why would I want to take a step backwards?"

Instead of recording directly to a computer-friendly storage device, Sony's digital camcorders record to digital tape (about the size of a microcassette, only thicker). The tape gives Sony camcorders two advantages. First, it produces high-quality video that's even better than today's VHS camcorders. It also can hold more video than Hitachi's PC Card without compressing it so tightly. That means Sony users can edit their videos frame by frame; Hitachi users can't.

Instead of one product, Sony offers its line of digital camcorders for movie buffs and a separate digital still camera - the Digital Mavica - that records JPEG images on a standard computer floppy disk.

Which vision wins out depends on consumers. Already, their photos are drifting to the computer and Internet instead of shoe boxes. If home videos follow, then we may all be using computers to capture Paris in the spring.

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