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Real-time needs spur digital photos

Intel will push for widespread "cyberphotography," a killer app and a killer way to sell more processors.

Forget family shots. Portraits of freeway on-ramps will sell the public on digital photography, according to Ron Smith, vice president and general manager of the computing enhancement group at Intel (INTC).

Photo updates of traffic conditions, news happenings, and other time-related events lay at the heart of computer-based "screen-to-screen sharing" or "cyberphotography," one of the two initial "killer" applications that Intel and others will promote heavily in the near future as part of its digital photography initiative. (See related story)

With screen sharing, a user will be able to connect to a stationary camera located at a remote site placed in such a way that it can give a visual status report. Pointed at a freeway, the camera can let commuters check the status of traffic before they leave, or try to leave, the office.

Eventually, people will use screen sharing to send visual notes to each other. "We believe it can be as common as email," Smith said.

That view is generally shared. By most accounts, digital photography is going to be huge. "All the film-based camera companies have told us that digital photography will wipe out film-based cameras," said Van Baker, director of consumer research at Dataquest. Screen sharing, in fact, is already being installed at certain day-care centers, he said, allowing parents to check on their kids.

Price and a lack of infrastructure are current hurdles for digital photography, he said, but they are by no means insurmountable. To achieve a resolution similar to that of film cameras, a digital camera needs to achieve a resolution of around 1.3 megapixels, or a resolution equivalent to what can be shown in 16 million colors on a 1,280-by-1,000-pixel screen. Today, most PCs can do 1,024 by 768.

Canon, Olympus America, and others have cameras that achieve this level of precision, but the devices cost around $1,000.

Consumers will start driving toward the digital option when the cameras hit about $300, which should occur in late 1998 or earlier.

Olympus this week announced two new cameras. The D-220L offers a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels and will cost around $499 when it is released in September. The D-320L offers resolution up to 1024-by-768 pixels but will cost $699.

Price cuts on "dye-sublimation" printers, which can produce film quality shots, should also occur, Baker said, although movement hasn't happened yet. The printers cost $300 to $500. Digital photos can also be viewed on PC or TV screens.

These price-performance issues also relate to the "digital darkroom" idea, which is the second predicted killer application. Digital darkroom implies that digital-camera-generated pictures are transferred to a PC for processing, modification, manipulation, and storage, then printed out.

Intel has been promoting digital photography as part of an overall computing graphics initiative. Graphics consume computing power and therefore are seen by many observers as a gateway for processor sales. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

During this period, Baker said that Intel and its allies will have to evolve the standards regarding software, storage, formatting, and other issues, which is already underway.

Computer manufacturers, of course, will have to adopt the chips and software that will let PC users develop or view pictures through their desktops. Cirrus Logic (CRUS) recently released a chipset for digital cameras and will report revenue for the coming quarter, CEO Thomas Kelly said.