We're back with CES 2019, coming to you live from the CNET stage at Tech West.
Joining me today is the inventor of the first digital camera, Steve Sasson.
Thank you so much for being here.
I have to start out by saying we have two things in common.
First, we're both from Brooklyn.
We can talk neighborhoods later.
And the second thing is that we're both huge Star Trek fans.
And I wanna start our discussion, before we get into the nitty gritty, of digital camera technology and your part in it by talking about how Star Trek had a little bit of an influence I've heard on what you did.
Well, you're right Connie.
I do like Star Trek.
I like to say that all good ideas come from Star Trek, right?
I'm there with you.
And I think it was Star Trek, you know, when you watched that show, you noticed that there was never a piece of paper on the bridge of the enterprise, and I think when I started working at Kodak dealing with film and paper, it didn't seem as modern as I would like it to be because of that bias.
And so when I started looking at a new way to take pictures, to do photography, I thought well wouldn't it be great to have something that doesn't have any consumables at all, in fact, no moving parts at all and so I think to some extent I was a little bit motivated by Captain Kirk and his crew.
So are you just a Star Trek question again, Captain Kirk, your favorite or have you followed through the years?
I've watched all the movies and they've gotten better and better, the effects have gotten better and better.
So technology that they're employing is getting better and better, but also more advanced, a little bit beyond me, some of the stuff they're talking about.
Well, let's rewind for a second, and let's go back to In your early 20s in electrical engineer, you end up at [UNKNOWN], and your manager gives you a project.
Now you've talked the invention of the first [UNKNOWN] camera in many venues.
and I encourage people to go read your bio and inventor's hall fame, lots of YouTube videos.
But gives us a recap about actually how it all started Well I arrived after graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1973, and I started working in an applied research laboratory at the apparatus division.
That was the division that made all the equipment that was used, that used the film and papers manufactured by Kodak Park.
And I was given an assignment, a casual one actually, to look at a new type of imager device called the CCD imager that had been invented only a few years before by Boyle and Smith at Bell Labs, and they said, buy one and see if there's anything useful you can do with this thing.
And they sort of left me alone for a year, and so I leveraged a lot of my Brooklyn experiences.
Where I use to get all my spare parts.
From the neighborhood and people throwing out TV's.
I did the same thing at Kodak, I went around Kodak and I got optical assemnblies, out of used parts bins and took parts, took used parts from different areas of the company.
And I assembled this odd looking device, took me about a year.
And it took pictures, black and white pictures, available light pictures with a 50 millisecond exposure time, recorded it digitally all to a tape, and then we built a playback unit that would display it on a television set.
So, the demonstrations that I gave inside of Kodak in 1977 or 76 was basically taking pictures of people in the room and showing it to them.
A TV screen.
Okay, and let's fact check here, cuz I got some info off the Internet.
Let's see if it's right.
Okay, let's see.
Eight pounds, and it had 100 by 100 resolution, or 0.01 megapixels?
Yeah, 0.01 megapixels, that's right.
It was 100 by 100 An equivalent of a thumbnail today, okay.
But that was all that was available at the time and it would demonstrated the concept of what I called filmless photography at the time.
And so we captured pictures and we demonstrated that and then the conversation started within Kodak that year about what this possibly could be like.
There's a lot of challenges, of course.
I have a great quote that you gave to the New York Times talking about this.
I wanna read it and get your reaction.
When you showed it to Kodak, they were less than impressed and you've said they were convinced that no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set.
Print had been with us for over 100 years, no one was complaining about print, they were inexpensive, so why would anyone want to look at their picture on a television set, digital, meh [LAUGH] Well, that's a true statement.
You know, when you introduce a new idea, it's always viewed in the context of the present and the past.
And so consequently, nobody was complaining about the photographic system we had, right?
So I was this young techy, and I had spent this year building this device.
But so I thought that they asked me how did I get it to work.
But they didn't ask me of how they ask me why.
Why would anybody wanna do that?
Why would anybody wanna look at the pictures on the television set?
How would you store your pictures if they are stored electronically?
What's an electronic photo album look like?
And so there were a lot of challenges, of course I have no answer.
So [LAUGH] So I really spend a lot of time saying I don't know, I just took their pictures and let them look at it.
And so But I had the great opportunity of working my full career at Kodak, and I spent all of my time, at that time, working on digital photography.
So I've probably worked in digital photography probably longer than just about anybody, but was never allowed to publically talk about any of this work until 2001.
Why is that?
In the early stages, when the first patent was issued in 1978, there was some questions that was being ask because it was made public.
And I was told by the Public Relations Department of course not to speak about it, that's not unusual for an R&D organization.
And I wasn't allowed to talk about this until We were asked to talk about this in 2001.
I was very lucky to get an award in 2001.
And then they were very happy that they had invented the digital camera because they were indeed in that business.
But all the years before that they weren't typically.
Well, conversations about all of the missteps that Kodak has had in the market, we could do that for an hour another time.
I'm gonna stay on digital cameras for a minute.
One of the questions I asked the team, I asked our team at CNet to throw some questions.
I had seven pages of questions for you, so I'm gonna whittle it down a little bit.
Number one, are you a good photographer?
No, not really.
Are you [INAUDIBLE] about that?
I must say because I get a chance to go around and speak a lot, and I'm usually speaking at a forum with real photographers like I was at National Geographic and stuff.
And these people are just fantastic.
They're great storytellers, that's what photographers are.
And they can see the picture before they take it.
So there's an art that I haven't even gotten close to being able to do.
All right, well, we'll give you points for that.
You are an electrical engineer and there's some talent there.
Yeah, I can tell you how not to build a camera, how's that?
We wanna do that in another interview.
What camera and phone do you use today?
Do you have a smartphone?
Yeah, I do have a smartphone.
I'm as astounded as everybody is to the quality and the technology being embedded in the typical smartphone.
I just bought the latest Apple phone, and the amount of intelligence into making up a picture like their portraiture mode.
For example, is extraordinary, you know?
I must say when I was asked in 1976 where I thought this would be I thought we'd be lucky to get to 2 million pixels in my career, right?
And I thought it would take 20 years to do it.
Well that was about a good prediction, but I never predicted after that point, and it really increased very rapidly after that point in terms of quality and performance.
So I'm as amazed as anybody else.
What do you think is the best thing that having everyone in the world being able to shoot and share photos in videos anywhere anytime?
Many people will have to share their stories.
I mean, that's what photography is.
It's basicallly recording your life and sharing it, right?
And digital photography allows you to do that.
That couple with social platforms in the Internet Easy printing.
All of that allows people to share their stories.
And to communicate.
So hopefully we're a better behaved society because we're always being pictured right.
And we're able to share you know our stories or our personal best with our friends and family.
What do you think is the worst thing about it?
Someone asked do you think this has devalued photography?
I don't think it's devalued photography.
Photography is really still in the hands of photographers and the great story tellers.
I do think to some extent it is infringing a little bit on our privacy for sure, because we're photographed everyday several times a day whether we like it or not.
And so to some extent the privacy issues always deal on board there but I think the good fall out with the bad.
What do you think is importance ability of the patent ability of what you did, technology, you still conduct you are working on and new advanced ideas, people talk about, is there value in having patent?
You had that early patent.
I retired from Kodak about ten years ago.
I do consulting now.
But patents are really important because they cement in the mind of the inventor exactly what you're talking about.
And they allow the organization that sponsored the development to potentially benefit from the inventiveness of the inventor.
So patents are really very relevant.
And, to some extent, I see people sometimes reluctant to do patents.
But, really, it's a valuable asset.
In fact, if you're a startup, typically it's the first real tangible asset that you have.
It might be a preliminary patent or a provisional patent What do you think is the biggest technical hurdles that we face today with respect to digital photography, digital cameras?
Well, I often say that photography today is you can choose the picture you want to take, or maybe it has already been taken, right?
Because it is available everywhere, so the challenge really is finding images.
And then basically utilizing those images in a way that you want to.
It's getting a lot easier now with this social platforms for sure.
I mean, so people would rather.
Share personal images but scientific imaging, for example, and the challenges of course is what's a real image?
And what's being created?
And you know there's a lot of work being done with AI being able to generate artificial images, even movies For example, that constitute a departure from what we assume is reality [LAUGH].
Okay, I have one last question for you, although I would love to keep you here for hours.
You're here to help induct the new inductees into the Hall of Fame, right?
Yes, I am proud to be a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and I'm also on the board of trustees.
And yesterday we announced the 2019 inductees into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
And it's really a great honor, and there was, I think, nine living inductees, and I think eight or nine historical inductees.
And they run the gamut of technology, all the way from the very first landing craft that was done on D-Day Well the people who did that.
To Bill Warner's famous development of non-linear video editing.
So, it's a really diverse group of people, and so, I was proud to be able to be a part of that.
Well, I was very proud to be able to interview you.
Thank you so much for being on stage with us.
Thank you very much.