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Cameras with built-in geotagging on horizon

Geotagging today is a pain, but it won't be too long before ordinary cameras can automatically give your photos location stamps alongside time stamps.

Geotagging, in which digital photos are labeled with the location where they were taken, is mostly unfamiliar to photographers today. But new developments are likely going to put the technology on the map.

In interviews at the Photo Marketing Association trade show in Las Vegas recently, several camera executives expressed an interest in geotagging and some companies were demonstrating technology. It's clear that mainstream geotagging is a matter of when, not if.

GE's E1050 is scheduled to ship in September with a built-in GPS receiver, though a PC will be required to make use of the location data. General Electric

The strongest evidence I encountered is Air Semiconductor, a start-up building a chip designed to let cameras process GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite signals so latitude and longitude data can be attached to digital photos. It remains to be seen how well this works, but this idea is the holy grail of geotagging--no extra hardware or software is required.

Samples of Air Semiconductor's first chip, the Airwave-1, are due to start shipping this summer, with production versions going on sale at the end of this year or early next, said Chief Executive Stephen Graham.

"I think PMA next year is going to be when a number of companies unveil cameras with geotagging built in," said Graham, who flew in from the company's Swindon, U.K., headquarters to meet with camera companies at the photo show.

One can expect Graham to be bullish on his market, but there's independent evidence, too. General Imaging, the licensee of General Electric's new camera product line, plans to begin selling a camera this fall that takes a significant step, if not the full plunge, toward GPS integration. And market analysis firm IMS Research expects about 40 million GPS-enabled digital cameras to ship in 2011, more than a fifth of the total.

"Camera manufacturers need to differentiate in an increasingly competitive market," IMS Research analyst Matia Grossi said in a November report.

Why geotag?
Geotagging offers a new twist on digital photography, but it's got more promise than practicality today.

By adding location data into pictures, photographers will be able to search through photo archives on their computers based on where they took their pictures, not just when.

And geotags provide an easy way to figure out where a particular photo was taken, which could be useful when trying to identify something like a cathedral long after your memory of your trip to Europe two summers ago has receded into a blur. Today, software such as Apple's Mac OS X and Adobe Systems' Photoshop Lightroom can show a map when the user wants to see a photo's location.

Geotagging will be built into cameras, said Steve Haber, senior vice president of Sony Electronics' digital imaging and audio division. "It has to be," he said. "We keep hearing, 'My PC is this black hole for my photos'...People (need) as much metadata on their pictures as possible--date, location, event--which allows for easier search and for eliminating the black hole."

"There's no doubt we'll see cameras with built-in GPS within the next two years, possibly sooner," said Chuck Westfall, technical adviser for the professional products marketing division at Canon, the world's largest camera maker. "The desirability of that feature is quite clear."

The technology that's appearing extends well beyond the home PC. Photographers can share and view geotagged photos at Web sites such as Google's Picasa and Yahoo's Flickr.

Why not geotag?
Today, though, geotagging involves work beyond just taking the photos. A geotagger typically carries a separate GPS navigation device, transferring its location data to a computer along with the camera's photos and using special-purpose software to marry the information.

The process takes a lot of time, USB cables, and forethought.

Why not just build a GPS receiver into the camera? Mainly because new hardware makes cameras bulkier and more expensive, and GPS receivers draw significant battery power.

"At this time we feel there are too many glitchy things--dropouts of communication with the satellites, power consumption," said Richard Pelkowski, digital SLR (single-lens reflex) product manager for Olympus America. "We just have to overcome some limitations."

Nikon and Canon have taken baby steps toward tighter integration. High-end Nikon SLRs such as the D300 and D3 have a port that lets a GPS unit be attached directly, communicating with the camera so the location information can be recorded. A wireless transmitter can augment Canon's higher-end SLRs, including the 40D and 1D Mark III, to provide a GPS port, too.

General Electric's 10-megapixel E1050, which licensee General Imaging discussed at PMA, is a bigger step.

The company's current plans are to sell two versions of the E1050, a $249 model in May and another with a built-in GPS receiver by about September that's expected to cost about $50 to $75 more, a GE representative said.

However, the E1050 can't actually geotag by itself. When a person takes a picture, the receiver briefly powers up and records a brief signal from the GPS satellites. Later, software on a computer processes the data, in part based on GPS satellite data retrieved from a server over the Internet, and tags the photos.

That process is the very one used by Geotate, an NXP Software spinoff that showed off its geotagging technology at PMA. At the show, Geotate product manager Paul Gough specifically pointed me toward the GE cameras, saying, "We'll see our technology--we're hoping before the end of this year." GE, though, declined to confirm the partnership and said it's conceivable GE might eventually use a different supplier's technology.

Air apparent
Air Semiconductor has its own way of working around GPS limitations.

First, the Airwave-1 chip is designed to consume very little power most of the time. As with regular GPS receivers, it takes awhile to find itself--the unpleasant half-minute minimum wait called time to first fix. But then, it goes into a low-power mode, even when the camera is off, that keeps track of its position with a very rough accuracy of about 100 meters, Graham said.

Then, when a person takes a picture, the chip goes into a higher-power mode for substantially less than a second to capture more precise data. The rough location data already present essentially gives the chip a running start on figuring out its location, sidestepping the time-to-first-fix wait, Graham said.

"The power consumption we're taking is completely negligible compared to the power consumption of the (camera) system," he said. The chip consumes 1 milliamp of current when in its low-power mode, compared with about 30 to 100 milliamps for handheld GPS chips and 400 to 500 milliamps for a camera overall.

Graham wouldn't divulge the Airwave-1's power consumption during peak activity, but said it would consume less than one-tenth--and probably less than 100th--of the camera's battery capacity even with heavy use.

The chip isn't designed to work in weak-signal areas such as indoors, a task that consumes a lot of power. Instead, when the satellite signal is lost, the chip tells the camera the last known position.

Graham was previously marketing manager for Renesas' radio-frequency products group, and the other Air Semiconductor co-founder, Chief Technology Officer David Tester, was GPS group leader for Conexant. The 12-employee start-up uses Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. to build its chips.