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Crowdfunding helps Apertus' new, open way to make a camera

Thousands of euros are pouring in for a camera project to give digital-video folks an alternative to the power and control of big names like Sony and Canon. It'll be tough, but the timing couldn't be better.

Apertus is building an open camera design, programmable and coming with interchangeable "shields" to customize its abilities.
Apertus is building an open camera design. Apertus

Next week, photographers and cinematographers with high-end, refined tastes will descend upon the Photokina show in Germany to see established camera makers' latest devices.

But if a European startup called Apertus gets its way, at least some of those customers will be moving out of the control of big-name companies like Canon, Panasonic, and Sony, embracing a new open videocamera design. The point of its project is to move far from the secret development and closed designs that prevail today in the camera world and instead build a camera called the Axiom Beta that can be configured with the hardware and software each user wants.

"The plan is to democratize camera technology and put the power back into the hands of the users," the company said on its Axiom Beta crowdfunding campaign launched Wednesday. "It is a self-liberation by creating high-end tools that we ourselves love to work with -- fully independent of any of the big established camera corporations."

Apertus hopes to raise €100,000 (about $129,000 or £80,000) for the Axiom Beta, a prototype model. So far it has raised more than €27,000 (roughly $35,000 or £21,500) to start delivering the camera in April 2015. Those who contribute more than €350 (around $450 or £250) will get Axiom Beta cameras for less than half price when they ship and will have an upgrade path to the production model, called the Axiom Gamma.

It's an ambitious effort, given how complicated digital imaging can be when it comes to things like battery life, reliability, electromagnetic interference, and user interface polish. But Apertus couldn't be trying at a better time. New cameras such as Red and Blackmagic Design have shown there's room for competition with industry incumbents. Crowdfunding offers a way for enthusiasts to fund other enthusiasts. The hardware-hacking movement is training a new generation of engineers and teaching opening up electronics supplies.

And crucially, the photography and cinema business has always been open to some degree to do-it-yourselfers willing to fiddle with equipment to get the results they want -- the Magic Lantern firmware improvements for Canon SLRs being the latest example. Lastly, success doesn't have to be defined as dethroning the Japanese giants.

Apertus plans two base models costing €5,990 (around $7,730 or £4,770) and €4,990 ($6,440 or £3,980). The cheaper one uses a Micro Four Thirds-sized image sensor, the 12-megapixel TrueSense KAC-12040 that measures 18.8 by 14.1mm. The more expensive model uses the Cmosis CMV12000, also 12 megapixels but with a larger 22.5 by 16.9mm imaging area, which can be used for cinema's Super35 format. Both sensors employ global shutter technology, which improves imaging with moving subjects.

The cameras will come with mounts to accept lenses from Canon, Sony, and Micro Four Thirds makers including Olympus, Panasonic, and Zeiss. They'll also have an option for the PL mount lenses widely used in the cinema business. The mounts are passive, meaning there's no electronic communication between the camera and the lens.

Apertus' Axiom is designed to accept a variety of hardware modules called shields that customize its abilities..
Apertus' Axiom is designed to accept a variety of hardware modules called shields that customize its abilities.. Apertus

Each camera will be able to record high-resolution 4K video with 4:4:4 color, which means none of the color-information compression used in most cameras today. They'll be able to record raw video -- unprocessed video captured directly from the sensor -- for maximum image quality. They'll also be able to take 4K still images.

Handling software for the cameras will be a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) processor -- in effect a chip that can be programmed for custom functions -- and a version of the Linux operating system.

The camera body will accept "shields" that attach to the back to add new hardware abilities, including triple HDMI ports that can be used for image capture or live video monitoring for focusing; 4:4:4 raw video output; lower-resolution 1080p video shot at higher than 180 frames per second. The organization is considering other options, too, including more lens mounts, a PCI Express (PCIe) communication link for SSD storage, and a 5K sensor.

Companies such as Canon have secured thousands of patents, but Apertus hopes to largely sidestep that intellectual property minefield by using minimal image processing and open hardware, Apertus chairman Sebastian Pichelhofer said.

"For digital cinema we want a camera that creates an image that is as unprocessed (untempered with) and natural as possible. For electronics and interfaces we focus on those that are not restricted by patents or license fees as we want to guarantee interoperability with open standards," he said. And the company isn't dealing at all with the optics patents of the lenses themselves.

Representatives are meeting this week in Amsterdam at the IBC show for video professionals.

Apertus has two components: a nonprofit organization based in Austria to handle work with community members who help the project, and a commercial company based in Belgium to handle the business. It's an unusual structure, but it's an unusual project, too.