Camera phone pioneer considers the gadget's cultural impact
SANTA CRUZ, California (AP) – The chilling sounds of gunfire on the Virginia Tech campus. The hateful taunts from Saddam Hussein’s execution.
Those videos, shot with cell phone cameras and seen by millions, are just a couple of recent examples of the power now at the fingertips of the masses. Even the man widely credited with inventing the camera phone in 1997 is awed by the cultural revolution he helped launch.
”It’s had a massive impact because it’s just so convenient,” said Philippe Kahn, a tech industry maverick whose other pioneering efforts include the founding of software maker Borland, an early Microsoft Corp. antagonist.
”There’s always a way to capture memories and share it,” he said. ”You go to a restaurant, and there’s a birthday and suddenly everyone is getting their camera phones out. It’s amazing.”
If Kahn feels a bit like a proud father when he sees people holding up their cell phones to snap pictures, there is good reason: He jury-rigged the first camera phone while his wife was in labor with their daughter.
”We were going to have a baby and I wanted to share the pictures with family and friends,” Kahn said, ”and there was no easy way to do it.”
So as he sat in a maternity ward, he wrote a crude program on his laptop and sent an assistant to a RadioShack store to get a soldering iron, capacitors and other supplies to wire his digital camera to his cell phone. When Sophie was born, he sent her photo over a cellular connection to acquaintances around the globe.
A decade later, 41 percent of American households own a camera phone ”and you can hardly find a phone without a camera anymore,” said Michael Cai, an industry analyst at Parks Associates.
Market researcher Gartner Inc. predicts that about 589 million cell phones will be sold with cameras in 2007, increasing to more than 1 billion worldwide by 2010.
Mix in the Internet’s vast reach and the growth of the YouTube generation, and the ubiquitous gadget’s influence only deepens and gets more complicated. So much so that the watchful eyes on all of us may no longer just be those of Big Brother.
”For the past decade, we’ve been under surveillance under these big black and white cameras on buildings and at 7-Eleven stores. But the candid camera is wielded by individuals now,” said Fred Turner, an assistant professor of communications at Stanford University who specializes in digital media and culture.
The contraption Kahn assembled in a Santa Cruz labor-and-delivery room in 1997 has evolved into a pocket-friendly phenomenon that has empowered both citizen journalists and personal paparazzi.
It has prompted lawsuits – a student sued campus police at the University of California Los Angeles for alleged excessive force after officers were caught on cell-phone video using a stun gun during his arrest; and been a catalyst for change – a government inquiry into police practices ensued in Malaysia after a cell-phone video revealed a woman detainee being forced to do squats while naked.
On another scale, parents use cell-phone slideshows – not wallet photos – to show off pictures of their children, while adolescents document their rites of passage with cell phone cameras and instantly share the images.
One of the recipients of Kahn’s seminal photo e-mail was veteran technology consultant Andy Seybold, who recalled being ”blown away” by the picture.
”The fact that it got sent wirelessly on the networks those days – that was an amazing feat,” Seybold said.
Kahn’s makeshift photo-communications system formed the basis for a new company, LightSurf Technologies, which he later sold to VeriSign Inc. LightSurf built ”PictureMail” software and worked with cell phone makers to integrate the wireless photo technology.
Sharp Corp. was the first to sell a commercial cell phone with a camera in Japan in 2000. Camera phones didn’t debut in the U.S. until 2002, Kahn said.
Though Kahn’s work revolved around transmitting only digital still photographs – video-related developments were created by others in the imaging and chip industries – his groundbreaking implementation of the instant-sharing via a cell phone planted a seed.
”He facilitated people putting cameras in a phone, and he proved that you can take a photo and send it to someone with a cell phone,” Seybold said.
Kahn, 55, is well aware of how the camera phone has since been put to negative uses: sneaky shots up women’s skirts, or the violent trend of ”happy slapping” in Europe where youths provoke a fight or assault, capture the incident on camera and then spread the images on the Web or between mobile phones.
But he likes to focus on the technology’s benefits. It’s been a handy tool that has led to vindication for victims or validation for vigilantes.
As Kahn heard the smattering of stories in recent years about assailants scared off by a camera phone or criminals who were nabbed later because their faces or their license plates were captured on the gadget, he said, ”I started feeling it was better than carrying a gun.”
And though he found the camera-phone video of the former Iraqi dictator’s execution disturbing, Kahn said the gadget helped ”get the truth out.” The unofficial footage surreptitiously taken by a guard was vastly different from the government-issued version and revealed a chaotic scene with angry exchanges depicting the ongoing problems between the nation’s factions.
Kahn also thinks the evolution of the camera phone has only just begun.
He wouldn’t discuss details of his newest startup, Fullpower Technologies Inc., which is in stealth mode working on the ”convergence of life sciences and wireless,” according to its Web site.
But, Kahn said, it will, among other things, ”help make camera phones better.”