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Digital Imaging Goes Wireless … Slowly

Digital camera manufacturers are seeking to liberate digital images from the confining USB cables, flash memory cards, hard drives and CD-ROMs that transport them, but only a handful of products out on the market currently tap into the burgeoning wireless imaging category.

Digital imaging’s explosive growth is due in no small part to consumers’ desire to e-mail images to friends and family, so it is a logical step for manufacturers to attempt to circumvent the PC and send pictures directly from the camera.

But the technology is in its infancy and obstacles have impeded progress, especially the completion of the wireless infrastructure necessary to handle the large files that digital cameras create. Currently, two products are at market that can wirelessly transmit images from the point of capture, and both require additional components tethered to the camera.

Ricoh’s i700 has a variety of connectivity options that allow it to wirelessly send image files as e-mails. The camera can be connected to cell phones that have internal modems; it can connect to a modem card and then onto older model cell phones; and it can be connected to the Ricochet modem (monthly fee required) for wireless functionality.

According to Jeff Lengyel, marketing manager for Ricoh’s digital imaging division, the i700 has been embraced by the SoHo/business market.

“When we introduced it, we thought we’d have to do a lot of business development to help companies understand the various applications of a wireless imaging workflow,” said Lengyel. “But the VARs were well ahead of the curve and now we have a few dozen test beds for this technology.”

Ricoh looked at the i700 as a wireless imaging experiment to gauge what the market wanted and what would work, Lengyel said.

“Ricoh never looked at digital cameras as a profit center, so our wireless imaging effort is not an attempt to gobble market share,” he said. “We found that early [in the i700’s introduction] we had a number of early adopting consumers but we also encountered more tech support problems than we anticipated.”

This is the reality of wireless imaging today, he added, it’s still in a complicated stage in which competing methods abound and only the knowledgeable consumer can successfully navigate the waters.

Ricoh is coming to market with the i500, a scaled down version of the i700, aimed specifically at expanding the consumer market for wireless imaging. This camera, announced in Japan and making its way to North America by the end of the summer, will carry an $899 suggested retail, 3.3 megapixel CCD, 3x optical zoom, as well as a more limited suite of wireless options.

According to Lengyel, Ricoh is currently exploring retail distribution. “This is a product that will require some explanation on the sales floor, so we’re looking into outlets that have qualified sales reps.”

As for market acceptance of wireless imaging, Lengyel thinks it will be some time before the bigger digital camera players bring their research and marketing to bear. “Ricoh doesn’t have to ship large volumes so we can justify a move into this market,” he said. “There’s no precedent in the market to indicate how big wireless imaging will be and so the big players can’t justify the move yet.

“Until 3G becomes a reality in the U.S. market, which is a good two years away, wireless imaging for the consumer will always be fragmented,” Lengyel said. “The technology to send these image files is not to the point where it will satisfy a mass consumer market. They’re not going to wait a few minutes to upload photos.” He said he didn’t expect it to become a widespread consumer phenomenon for a couple years.

“But on the business side, we’ve had a great deal of positive feedback,” he said, estimating it will take only six months before it takes off in business applications.

Kodak has put an enormous emphasis on a concept they call “infoimaging”— where images will play an increasingly important role in personal and business communications. Underlying a segment of the “infoimaging” revolution will be wireless imaging, which will streamline the transmission of images from the point of capture (be it camera, PDA or cellphone) to their final destination.

Kodak has eschewed the higher-end digital camera market, however, and is currently working in conjunction with Palm Pilot to enable wireless imaging. Kodak’s PalmPix series is a VGA-resolution add-on for the Palm handheld. If the Palm is wirelessly enabled, images captured with the PalmPix can be e-mailed or uploaded to the Internet.

Kodak has also partnered with Siemens to develop cellphones with digital imaging capabilities, though no product plans have been announced.

According to Nancy Carr, VP of applied and digital imaging at Kodak, the company attempted to integrate wireless circuitry into the MC3 but held off because the infrastructure to transmit data-heavy image files is not yet in place. She too pointed to the arrival of 3G as the moment when wireless imaging will blossom as a serious segment of the digital imaging market.

“I think it will be adopted like the cellphone,” Carr said. “How long was the cellphone out in the business market before consumers decided it was something they had to have?”