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'Innovation best comes from people who know nothing about the topic'

Steven J Sasson, inventor of the digital camera.
Photograph, courtesy: Kodak
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August 07, 2006

The world of photography has undergone a radical change in the past few years, especially since the advent of the digital camera. 'Digicams' have made photography much easier and more exciting.

And the man who brought about this revolution in photography is Steven J Sasson. Sasson, an electrical engineer, invented the world's first digital still camera and playback system in 1975 working with Eastman Kodak Company.

He is still a Kodak employee and during his tenure with the company has been involved in the development of Kodak's award-winning range of EasyShare thermal printer docks, commercialisation of retail photo kiosks, industry leading halftone proofer in the graphics market, and advanced technologies in Kodak's professional range.

Sasson grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y, and is a 1972 (BS) and 1973 (MS) graduate of Renssalear Polytechnic Institute in electrical engineering.

"Innovation best comes from people who really know nothing about the topic," says Sasson, who is still on a journey -- that he describes as 'fun with photography' -- to innovate new technologies that will revolutionise photography.

In an interview with's Deputy Chief Copy Editor Manu AB, Sasson speaks about innovation and the future of photography.

What was the inspiration behind inventing a digital camera?

Thirty years ago we started many experiments at Kodak Labs. In 1974, I was given a charge-coupled device (it is an image sensor, consisting of an integrated circuit with a group of linked capacitors sensitive to light) . It was a brand new device and I was asked to so some imaging experiments.

Not really knowing what to do, I decided to make an image-capture device, made it portable and I came up with the idea of building a digital camera, different from the conventional camera that existed then.

How was the experience? How did you go about the project?

It was a small effort by me and a few technicians at the lab. We spent a year on this project and in December 1975, we shot the first pictures, which I would call 'film-less photography,' and we could see these photos on television.

The device was nothing similar to the present day digital camera. It was a toaster-sized device, weighing about 8.5 pounds. We took the first black-and-white photographs and tried viewing it on television. We had a board meeting in Kodak after which several questions were raised, and I was asked why people would want to see photos on TV, and how long it would take for the project to become a reality.

I did not have any clear answers. The effort was to do something radically different. And our first consumer camera was launched in 1994 under the name of Apple Quick Take, which was introduced in association with Apple Computers.

How does one think out-of the box, how do you invent things?

Innovation best comes from people who really know nothing about the topic. When I came to Kodak, I did not know much about cameras. When they asked me to experiment with the CCD (charge-coupled device), I did not know what to do.

I just tried an analogist's way to take pictures, I was no photography expert. I could not have built a conventional camera. The ideal way is not to just look to the experts, look to people who have a passion to explore, and those who are not afraid of making mistakes.

Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor and he was always surrounded by people who thought they were all better than him. Inventors spend most of the time being wrong and liking it, being comfortable with failure, because that is how you learn. Inventors have to be resolute and the environment should be tolerant to you. You have to spend a lot of time being wrong than being right.

How has the journey been from inventing the first digital camera to the present day innovations at Kodak?

A lot of innovation has taken place at Kodak in the last 30 years. We have been the pioneers in several technologies in photography. No matter who makes which digital camera you use today, the camera uses a lot of IP (intellectual property) that Kodak first created.

Kodak invented the first megapixel sensor. The first colour filter tray was from Kodak. Image compression up to the JPEG standard and, of course, the first digital camera was also developed at the Kodak Labs. One of our cameras was used in the space shuttle mission in the United States in 1991. We also set up the first photo kiosk in 1994.

What is the internal process by which Kodak keeps itself on the cutting edge of innovation?

We aligned our developments with the computer rather than television, as we realised that computers will be the centre of photography and the television will not be good enough.

We went on to develop the high resolution camera in 1997, a point and shoot sub-$1,000, 8 megapixel consumer camera. We launched the EasyShare system for photos in 2001. We have continued to innovate in EasyShare docks, always innovating technology, making it easy to use in line with George Eastman's motto, 'You press a button and we do the rest.'

He made photography available, and easy to use. In the 1880s, he struggled with photography just as we did in the in 1990s with different type of technologies. We have made technology easy, convenient, exciting, fun in a manner that can be used by young and old.

What is your biggest achievement at Kodak?

I have had a great career at Kodak. I had the opportunity to see the birth of digital photography and see it mature. From the time when we had several arguments on whether digital photography can ever be a reality to actually seeing digital photography completely changing the world of photography has been a special privilege to me.

Kodak is world leader in thermal printing. I was also part of that technology behind it.

Over thirty years, I have also had the privilege of working with the best technology and with fantastic people. And, at the end, to know that I was dealing with something important to people, which is their memories, which are precious to all. I have been very fortunate.

Kodak was a pioneer in developing several new technologies. But why are other firms seen to have an edge over Kodak now?

Kodak led the revolution, the inventions that Kodak did were major ones. We have a portfolio of 1,000 digital camera patterns. These patterns have been licensed by everyone. We have the IP edge throughout the world. The whole industry has undergone a technological revolution over 100 years. We are No. 3 in the world.

In India, we are No. 1 in terms of market share. A lot of the names that you take for granted in the photography field today did not exist thirty years ago. With over 100 years' of experience, we know what people want.

To cite a small example, we realised that it was a chain of pain for people to take a print of a digital image, so we invented the EasyShare dock. Digital technology enables us to offer people what they desire from photography.

How many patents does Kodak hold?

Kodak has over 1,000 digital camera patents. We have a licensing system with camera manufacturers all over the world. We cover anything to do with imaging. We have over 10,000 patents that cover anything with imaging. We also have active licensing programmes.

What are the new projects Kodak is working on? What new developments can we see in the near future?

We are working on new ideas and trends that will interest people. People don't want to carry around huge cameras. So we developed a sleek camera with dual lens, using state-of-the-art technology. You can e-mail, or send photos to a mobile phone which is Bluetooth enabled. We will continue to make photography more interactive.

We are also working on the Kodak Photo Touch software to help you in photo image processing. This software changes the photo automatically, the way you want it to look using applied intelligence. With photo-cropping, youngsters like to improve the way they look, they can go for face improvement technology as customers desire to look good. The software finds the flaws and automatically corrects it.

Aging women like to look better, so the software looks for unwanted features, wrinkles blemished and gives a new look. You can also wipe away any facial problems, which will make you look better, it will all be done automatically. Now this is being used only by professional photographers. We will develop it for the next level of customers, and build it into devices.

This technology will be developed so that it can be adapted to different cultures, to improve the way they look.

We are also looking at photo voice -- extending a wi-fi camera to Internet-based telephone (VoIP) to share photos as your speak to your friends or relatives. Technical perfection will take time. We are working with the fundamental stuff. . . we have to make it fool-proof.

Digital Shoe Box is another project wherein a group of old arbitrary photos over a period of 40-50 years can be scanned, put through KPT (Kodak Photo Touch) to improve it and arrange in a chronological order in an album, everything can be done automatically.

Has the advent of digital photography affected other businesses like film rolls and printing, which were major revenue earners for the company?

In India's context. . . India is a dual consumption market. In India, there is a mass market to use traditional media, Camera penetration is low, about 13 per cent nationally. The urban areas are picking up digital technology and camera. So it doesn't really clash with each other.

Digital photography has thrown up more opportunities. More options are available with digital photo finishing, development and proliferation of digital labs was a result of digital photography, and it has expanded opportunities for all aspects of the imaging business.

Do you think that conventional photography will cease to grow?

There is a mass market for traditional and conventional modes of photography, especially in countries like India. Our efforts will be to enhance the entire process of photography and make it better and easier.

How do you see the Indian market for digital cameras? Will we see a reduction in the prices?

Indian is a growing, very important and exciting market for Kodak. It has been growing rapidly -- traditional as well as digital medium. At similar prices you may get more features in each camera, but Kodak's intent is not really to bring prices down. Prices have dropped dramatically over the years.

You will get a good digital camera below $100-150 prices in the US. We are looking at increasing photo kiosks across the country in hypermarts and super stores.

Do you think innovation is happening in India? What do you think of today's India?

India is an incredible story. It is very exciting to see what is going on in India. You have good education. . . people value education in India. It has different business models. Indian companies are doing well.

For instance, Infosys [Get Quote] is among the most innovative companies. I have worked with Infosys on a photo finish project. The good thing about them is that they are willing to take challenges, and try new things, which is very important. The future looks very bright for India.

What is the future of photography?

The future is brilliant, images are becoming easy to deal with and photography is becoming a casual form of communication. Experimental photography is getting very popular. Like my daughter lives to record events and relive the experience of a concert she has been to, through photos and videos.

Sky is the limit for what we are going to do. The challenges are formidable, as photography has opened more challenges than ever. Cameras are marvellous devices and are getting better, smaller, futuristic and cheaper.

The challenge of the future is make smaller and easier devices with more features and to work on the entire photography chain, and to make every element of the chain from capturing the image, to processing, to printing and making the final digital file easy, fun, quick and interactive.

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