Disposable digital

Camera: Retailers are pitching a Beltsville company's single-use, film-free model to users who want photo CD convenience at a throwaway price.

August 07, 2003|By Cassie M. Chew | Cassie M. Chew,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sharing vacation photos may just have gotten one step easier with the launch of a single-use digital camera for $11 by Pure Digital Technologies.

Beltsville-based Ritz Camera rolled out the disposable digital cameras last week under the Dakota Digital brand in 92 stores in more than 14 cities, including Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas.

The cameras had been tested for nine months under the Studio 35 brand name at 14 Walgreens stores in Madison, Wis. Walgreens recently said it is expanding its test market to all of its 146 Wisconsin stores.

"It sparked the curiosity of a lot of people, especially those who didn't have experience with digital cameras," said Michael Pozin, Walgreens' media relations manager.

This fall, Disney World is expected to offer its own brand of the camera at its resorts, according to Simon Fleming-Wood, vice president for marketing at the San Francisco, Calif. based-Pure Digital Technologies.

Following the trend

Consumers like disposable cameras in general, data show. Single-use cameras represent more than 19 percent of film rolls processed, according to the Photo Marketing Association. The hope is that digital versions will be equally popular.

The palm-sized disposable camera's recessed lens gives it a retro look, but the features are 21st century. The $10.99 camera (it costs about the same to process the images) offers 25 4-by-6-inch digital prints, processed "in minutes" along with a photo CD.

The image resolution is equivalent to "slightly over 2 megapixels," Fleming-Wood said, which allows the images to be enlarged to 8 by 10 inches with good results. The photo CD produced by a photo processing lab allows users to e-mail the images and upload them on Web sites or online photo albums.

Three seconds after sliding its on/off switch, the camera beeps and the green "ready" light glows. A digital display window flashes the number of remaining pictures. It runs on two AA batteries.

Plusses and minuses

Pure Digital Technology's disposable camera enters the market with a few extras. The camera allows photographers to delete and retake the last snapshot taken. And it has a 10-second self-timer to allow the photographer to get into the shot.

The camera features an automatic flash with an optimal range of 4 to 8 feet. The flash is not as strong as those on some film-based single-use cameras, which have ranges up to 15 feet, Fleming-Wood said.

The sensors used to capture images in digital photography are not as sensitive as the 400- to 800-speed film used in many single-use cameras, Fleming-Wood said. In general, sensors in digital photography capture images at 100 ASA. But the company still promises good nighttime and indoor photos.

"We don't see 8 feet as a constraint," he said. That's because the processing technology can detect if an image is dark and adjust the brightness of the print.

One thing that is missing from this camera is an LCD display, the feature on multi-use digital cameras that allows a user to see a preview of each shot. A new model with a display panel is expected to be released in November, Fleming-Wood said.

Bare minimum technology

The camera lacks the image processing technology found in multiple-use digital cameras and that, Fleming-Wood said, is why the camera can be offered at such a low price.

Almost all of Pure Digital's technology for processing the images lies on servers that are connected to each store's digital processing lab.

"We leave only the bare minimum [technology] in the camera," Fleming-Wood said.

The camera uses a sensor based on CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) technology to capture images, but it doesn't include the chips to compress images into photo file formats, such as JPEG.

Fleming-Wood says this technology leads to better prints because the company's proprietary compression technology allows images to be printed from raw image data rather than compressed data, in which some of the image data is lost.

"Because of the separation of technology we are able to get significant quality out of low-cost components," Fleming-Wood said.

Pure Digital Technologies' processing also allows more "consistent processing" over home-based digital printing efforts because it removes variables such as how experienced a user is with photo-editing software and differences between printers and screens used to process the images, Fleming-Wood said.

No universal processing

Those who buy the cameras while traveling might need to get their film processed before they go home, though. A single-use digital camera purchased at a Walgreens in Wisconsin, for instance, cannot be brought to a Ritz store in Baltimore for processing.

"With the technology it is possible for a camera purchased at one store to be processed at another store, but that [policy] is up to the" company that owns the store, Fleming-Wood said.

The 2-year-old Pure Digital Technologies plans to market the camera with different retail partners and with a major camera brand this fall.

The camera comes on the heels of Kodak's PlusDigital single-use film camera ($11.49). The cost of processing the PlusDigital's 27 exposures at any location offering Kodak Picture Processing includes a photo CD.

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