Wi-Fi Memory Card Connects Cameras to the Internet

Eye-Fi’s two-gigabyte secure-digital (SD) memory card can wirelessly send photos to a PC or a photo-sharing website.

A closely watched Silicon Valley startup is releasing its first product today: the Eye-Fi memory card, which will give ordinary digital cameras a wireless link to computers and the Net.

Local broadcast: Like any other memory card, the Eye-Fi wireless card plugs into a digital camera’s memory slot and stores images. But when the card comes within range of a preselected Wi-Fi network, it automatically uploads those images to the Internet.

A handful of cameras on the market already have built-in Wi-Fi transmitters. But the new $100 card will work with any digital camera that uses a secure-digital (SD) memory card. Since that’s the majority of cameras on the market today, Eye-Fi’s device potentially opens the technology to the mass market.

Depending on how the user configures it, the card automatically beams photos directly from the camera to a computer or uploads them to a photo-sharing site such as Flickr or Shutterfly. The Eye-Fi card is aimed at photographers who tend to leave used memory cards lying around, losing them or forgetting about them before downloading their contents.

“Our focus from the beginning has been less about whether this is cool technology, or sexy, and more about how we can actually make this process easier for people,” says Yuval Koren, one of Eye-Fi’s cofounders.

Can point-and-shoot digital photography really be made any easier? Koren and his Eye-Fi colleagues believe that the tools for sharing photos with others haven’t kept pace with the technologies in the cameras themselves.

In explaining Eye-Fi’s origin, Koren describes going to a wedding in New York several years ago. All the guests took pictures and promised to swap digital copies after they’d returned home. But almost none of them did.

The little Eye-Fi card is designed to help people over that hump, by making the sharing as automatic as possible.

To configure the card, the user inserts it into an accompanying USB card reader, which must be plugged into an open USB port on a computer. A setup menu allows the user to select a local Wi-Fi network and to determine whether the card will upload pictures to the computer, directly to one of 17 photo-sharing or social-networking sites, or to both. Although the card will recognize only one network at a time, the setup procedure can be repeated on multiple networks–say, at home, at work, and at a friend’s house. The user can then switch between networks or change the pictures’ destination from Eye-Fi’s website, without hooking the card back up to a computer.

Once the card is set up, the user simply snaps it into the camera. Thereafter, whenever the camera is on and in range of the selected wireless network, uploading will begin automatically.

All uploaded photos pass through Eye-Fi’s own servers, which make sure the images are the right size and resolution for the destination site. (While some photo-sharing sites store high-resolution pictures, others limit users to relatively low resolutions.) If the user’s computer is off when the card logs on to the network, Eye-Fi’s servers store the uploaded images until the computer is online again.

Analysts say that the idea is likely to appeal to high-volume digital photographers and that the technology could help change photo-archiving and -sharing habits.

“It adds a new dimension to digital photography,” says Ron Glaz, an analyst with the research firm IDC. “It makes life a lot easier. Memory cards have gotten so big, it’s easy to have three or four months of images on a card. Lose the camera, or lose the card, and you’ve lost all that content.”

But the automatic-upload feature may prove habit changing for other reasons, too. Digital photography has made it simple for people to take dozens or hundreds of photos that they have no intention of sharing, whether for reasons of aesthetics or of privacy.

With Eye-Fi’s automatic-upload feature, it’s easy to imagine a few such pictures accidentally slipping onto public photo sites. Glaz predicts that photo sharers will quickly learn to delete unwanted photos on their cameras or will simply use the PC upload feature first, rather than risk posting private photos or clogging their online photo accounts with unwanted shots.

With ever more devices gaining wireless connections and Internet-dependent features, Eye-Fi has other content-sharing technologies in the works. The company’s developers had initially considered allowing users to swap pictures directly between cameras, much as Microsoft’s Zune digital music player lets them do with audio files. But the developers discarded that idea in favor of simplifying use, Koren says.

He declined to give specifics on the company’s future development plans, however.

“We’re trying to close the gap between the devices in people’s pockets, out in the real world, and what’s happening on the networks,” Koren says. “There’s still a lot more opportunity for us there.”

Beginning Tuesday, the Eye-Fi card will be available in a two-gigabyte version from most major online stores, for a list price of $99.99. The product will work with either PC or Mac computers; there are currently no plans for Linux compatibility.

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