My Journey of Exploration during a Period of Revolutionary Changes
in the Arts and Sciences of Computing. Photography & Digital Art.
The technologies that enabled digital imaging as we know it today, began to fall into place in the mid-1980's. The first CCD (charge coupled device) had been invented in 1972. By 1984, small (0.3 Megapixel) CCD sensor technology had become inexpensive enough for consumer type applications like video cameras & camcorders. In fact, Kodak's Consumer Electronics Division would introduce the KodaVision 2000, an 8mm camcorder in 1984. The Macintosh computer was also introduced during this year and this is where I decided to begin my timeline. Below is some background info leading up to the beginning of the timeline.
In 1975, Steve Sasson of Kodak had built and demonstrated the first digital still camera which stored digital images on an audio cassette. A year later, Bryce Bayer (also of Kodak), invented the RGBG color filter array which would allow color photography with a single CCD chip. These two technologies would be key to the future development of digital photography. Initially however, CCD sensor use would be limited to military, scientific, industrial and forensic imaging applications. Like many new technologies, the high cost to produce quality sensors, meant only certaine markets could justify the expense of purchasing them. The largest purchaser of sensors was us, the US taxpayers (think NASA, CIA, FBI, DEA, Armed Forces, etc.). Initial yields were low from the Kodak silicon lab, producing very few high quality CCD chips. Only when there was enough demand and an actual production facility was built, would the cost begin to drop enough to be affordable. First to professional photographers and later average consumers. Getting Kodak's top management's go ahead to invest in such a facility, was not a given.
Digital scanning and image editing were already being done on large pre-press computer systems. The development of the personal computer would finally provide the foundation that would enable those digital imaging tools to reach a wider audience, not the television set as Kodak was predicting. Desktop computers were becoming more and more common on desks in many corporate workplaces. Initally, as spreadsheet and word processing tools for managers. Later as drafting, drawing and paint software evolved, they began to be used in a variety of design and engineering visualization applications as well,
In 1981 Sony had demonstrated the first electronic still video camera, called the Mavica, which used a CCD color array and wrote still images onto an analog video recording technology in the form of a 2.5" Video Floppy Disc. It would arrive in stores by 1983. You could store 25 full frame video images or 50 field (half resolution) images on one SVF disc. The image quality of these units was extremely poor, mostly suffering from the limitations of the NTSC composite video signal and then the subsequent analog recording (same technology as VCR recording) to magnetic disk. Images were blurry, full of color noise, artifacts and the quality degraded each time the disk was copied. This wasn't so with digital recording. every copy is the same as the original.
Kodak and many other consumer electronic companies scrambled to put together development teams to exploit this new technology. Personally, I wasn't clear on who would buy a very expensive camera with image quality even worse than the Kodak Disc camera. An answer would soon be discovered though. It turned out photojournalist could live with it in some instances, especially in order to meet deadlines. We learned that what they really wanted was at least 4x the resoluion of video, or megapixel. Quality could suffer a bit, if meant they would be the first to publish images of an important event, Still video quality often didn't cut it for the bigger news organizations, so was going to be a tough sell.
While Television broadcast technology hadn't changed significantly in fifty years. Computer display cards & monitors it seemed were changing every week, more colors, more resolution, bigger monitors with even more resolution, coprocessors, graphics processors. First VGA and then 8-bit color display technology began to displace the predominantly monochrome displays of the early personal computer. The first twenty-four (24) bit color displays made their appearance around 1985, with the ATT Targa video cards for IBM PC's. The Targa card was one of the first color video digitizers for the computer. It allowed one to capture video camera images directly into the Targa board's memory buffer, The resulting images were nearly pristine, with none of the noise and artifacts that result from analog storage methods. The included software allowed you to do fantastic things with this incredibly clear and vibrant image. Captured with the press of a software button on the display, using a mouse pointer. Once edited you could then save your manipulated file digitally to the PC'a hard or floppy drive. The first "affordable" (Around $10K without hires RGB video camera, which ran another $10K) digital color photography system. Mac users would have to wait until 1989 for 24/32 bit color support on the Macintosh I I platform.
Kodak's new Consumer Electronics Division was not doing well selling the Kodak labeled, Japanese made 8mm video camcorders. The magnetic media demand was growing just fine though. Kodak dropped the camcorders in 1986. making the decision to exit the business. I wonder how Sony and others managed to sell so many 8mm camcorders in the years since. instead pinning their future plans on the potential of this new video industry standard.... the Still Video Floppy. A line of Still Video products based on this SVF standard was just ramping up. They included a single disk player/recorder, a multi-disk player/ recorder, an SVF camera, a video transceiver and finally an Instant film based video printer to which I was assigned as a Color Quality Technician. An engineer and I were working on a way to calibrate them on the end of the line. Not an easy job, the color response on that film was all over the place.
In the spring of 1986, (shortly after Polaroid won it's suit against Kodak) Consumer Electronics Division was renamed the Electronic Photography Division. Please observe that Electronic does not necessarily denote digital. The new "electronic" photo technology Kodak was about to adopt was an already 50+ year old technology. A medium quality, analog recording technology like VHS, which was often compressed further into a composite video signal, full of artifacts, noise and degraded with every generation of copy. That's the obselete television broadcast standard that we only recently did away with in favor of a new High Definition digital signal. Change comes very slowly in some industries. Fortunately, photography wouldn't have to wait for all that to happen first!
As one of the original members of that first Electronic Photography Division of Kodak, I would witness what was an extremely turbulent era in Kodak's history and a turning point in the history of photography as well.
the dawning of the digital age of photography!
Photoshop & Stratavision 3D Composite Image © Peter J. Sucy - 1992
By late 1985, I was already scanning my own photos into my home computer (a Mac 128K), and had recognized the coming convergence of computers and photography. I often brought ImageWriter prints of my scanned photos into the office to show around to my supervisors and peers, trying to make my case. This was at a time however, when computers themselves were foreign to most people. For the most part, only Kodak managers had PC's on their desks, used solely for spreadsheets or word processing. Everybody else had a PROFS terminal connection to the mainframe. Software engineers "might" have a PC in their office for writing code, but that was about it, unless you were a real nerd, like me, and had one at home.
Most people within Kodak at the time, (and most other people, outside of Silicon Valley itself) were not paying all that much attention to the Valley. However, this is where digital photographic input, storage and output devices would first began to appear. And many from small startups. I feared Kodak was already behind the curve and could be wasting precious time pursuing Still Video technology. Utilizing my new desktop publishing tools, I would try to provoke discussions, hoping that Kodak would finally embrace the digital revolution of photography! .
This is the tale of my journey of exploration during this exciting period of time, the years 1984-1992. The timelines at the top and bottom of the page will take you through each year, highlighting new advances, new imaging products that appeared, EPD products of the time, copies of actual product timelines, protocol & requirements documents, new product proposals, photos and a few images I created with these new imaging tools. The story within, tells of how I would become the primary scribe and conceptual artist for the young division. I had a unique view point, as a visual artist who desired the capabilities these new digital tools would bring. I was impatient, wanting the future to come ASAP, I had a good idea of what was ahead for artists and photographers. I imagined color image editing, music creation, video editing, animation and 3D modeling software, just to name a few.
My computer would become the primary historian for those first years of dramatic change at Kodak. At Kodak paper copies were typically destroyed after a few years, however, there was no digital file retention process in place as yet. Fortunately, I rounded up all my files, and in 1992 burned a CD-ROM, thinking they might be of interest someday. The computer, besides being the most wonderful creative tool ever, is a great archealogical instrument as well. Each time you create a new document and save it to disk, it is automatically time stamped. If you're careful and backup all your work, you create a trail in time that can be followed backwards, revealing the thought processes that occurred. That's sort of how this project came about. While looking back at the files I'd saved over the years, I realized they were snapshots of my journey. Combining these snapshots with my recollections and information from articles in the various Mac magazines of the time (I still have many of them in boxes in the basement), and some help from my colleagues of that period, I hope to assemble an illustrated document of those experiences.
I've scanned hundreds of brochures, original documents, illustrations and photos. I've converted most of the documents to PDF format, so I highly recommend utilizing a PDF plugin for your browser. So, be sure to click on the images, there is much more there to explore than first appears. While much of the timeline is complete, it is still a work in progress. I will continue to update as I discover or recover resources from my analog archives, so check back every now and then.
BarneyScanXP photo composite -1989 - © Peter J. Sucy
Please keep in mind that this is the story of my experiences, from my perspective, and as such is not intended to be a definitive history of all of digital imaging, just what I experienced and still have records of. There may have been thousands of other digital proposals, I was not privy to. The bias is definitely on the products I actually worked on, had knowledge of, purchased or played with, illustrated, designed, proposed or copy edited for others in the team. By the way, it was the best team I ever worked with. I learned a great deal from working with them, thanks to their patience. I'd had no video or electronics experience prior, I was trained as a filmmaker and fine art photographer, Kodak was my 9-5 job to pay the mortgage and fund those pursuits. I never imagined I'd be able to actually pursue them as part of my job.
The many talented engineers of that original EPD and Printer Products Division, would have an impact on nearly all the Kodak digital products that followed and many are still having an impact in new imaging industries today.
PS: Any galleries, museums or institutions interested in an multi-media installation on the genesis of digital imaging at Kodak? I have resources to borrow some period equipment like scanners, cameras, printers, and so forth. I have a few vintage Macs that could be running vintage software and prototypes, in addition to all the media above. Please contact me if interested.
Click here to mail me your comments.