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Can digicams survive in the smartphone age?

Software and services are increasingly enticing new applications for consumer photography and creating new modes of sharing memories, but they're also shutting out digital cameras.

HTC Evo 3D at CTIA 2011
The EVO 3D can capture HD video in 3D. According to NPD's 3D 360 Monitor, only 2 percent of consumers are aware of the existence of 3D digital cameras. Kent German/CNET

Point-and-shoot digital cameras have been struggling. According to NPD's Retail Tracking Service, in 2010, the highly penetrated devices declined 5 percent in units.

On March 16 at the Samsung Experience product showcase in New York, the digital camera market took a baby step toward addressing the Web-based photo-sharing capabilities of smartphones when Samsung formally introduced the Wi-Fi-equipped, social network-savvy SH100 that was first announced at CES. Within a week, though, digital cameras were back to feeling the heat.

At a CTIA Wireless expo event punctuated by the repeated wearing and removing of 3D glasses and market information from DisplaySearch and In-Stat, Sprint and HTC announced the EVO 3D. The handset marks a significant upgrade to the very successful EVO 4G, the first WiMax smartphone announced at last year's CTIA.

NPD recently cited the EVO 4G as the best-selling large-screen handset in 2010. The EVO's 3D auto stereoscopic display can accommodate the relatively rare 3D movies and the even more rare 3D Android games, but what partners HTC and Sprint talked up was the potential for the smartphone's dual lenses to capture 3D photos and videos, an area of high interest to consumers, according to NPD's 3D 360 Monitor.

There are some significant limitations imposed by the handset's parallax barrier display overlay enabling the 3D. For example, the effect disappears when the phone is in portrait mode. However, unlike other cameras that can generate 3D photos with a single lens, the EVO 3D can capture HD video in 3D. And while Sprint did not announce subsidized pricing for the handset, it is likely to come in closer to the $200 of the original EVO 4G than the $400 or more many retailers charge for the Fujifilm FinePix REAL 3D W1. According to NPD's 3D 360 Monitor, only 2 percent of consumers are aware of the existence of 3D digital cameras.

The Color effect
The second big imaging smartphone announcement occurred far from the Orlando, Fla., sunshine and merger overcast covering CTIA. Start-up Color announced that it had raised $41 million for its new digital image-based social service, a smartphone app initially available on iOS and Android that allows one to look at and download photos of those in the same location as you without even knowing who they are. Color is the proverbial elephant being examined by the blind men--an anti-Facebook, a local pictorial Twitter, a mobile reinvention of Flickr, an Instagram that's been exploded, an icebreaker that upends introductions, and a socially acceptable deliverance of voyeurs.

Color uses photos that are both archival and "in the moment." You can see the collective output of everyone in your location and then drill down into their minimally identifying ID and get a sense of who they are and what they like, perhaps seeing someone's kids before you know who they are. Color challenges notions of privacy and the checks and balances inherent in unselective sharing and viewing of photos, but it has strong appeal to innate human curiosity--or will, at least, once it can build up its network.

Color taps into a lot of technology inside smartphones today to figure out its context. For example, it can determine the location of performers at a concert by sensing the collected positioning of where most of the phones are pointing when the photos and videos are taken. It is but the latest example of a combination of software and services that are enticing new applications for consumer photography and creating new modes of sharing our memories, but that are shutting out digital cameras.