Photography changes the way we communicate

Philippe Kahn

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Philippe Kahn [ BIO ]

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Philippe Kahn

Philippe Kahn, chief executive officer of Fullpower Technologies, the world leader for mobile sensing technology, holds a master’s degree in mathematics and is the author of dozens of patents. Fullpower is Mr. Kahn’s fourth successful technology company. Additionally, he has received numerous technology and business awards including the 2002 International Imaging Association (I3A) Leadership Award and was selected as one of Byte Magazine’s twenty most important people in the history of the computer industry.

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Philippe Kahn, inventor of the first camera phone solution, describes how photography linked to wireless technology changes the way we share images and ideas.

In the history of photography, function often follows necessity when it comes to invention and innovation. By the mid 1990s, the internet and wireless cellular technology were starting to mature, the first commercially successful digital cameras appeared, and cellular phones and computers were starting to interoperate. As an engineer and avid user of the web and email, I realized that the future for imaging in the 21st century would be based on bringing these various technologies together. We already had all the building blocks necessary to enable the public to point, shoot, and then share photographs anywhere, anytime, and wirelessly. What we needed was for internet servers, cellular networks, cell phones, and cameras to all work together seamlessly and intelligently.

At the time, I owned a Casio QV-10 digital camera, a Motorola Startac cellular phone, and a Toshiba laptop, and had been working for awhile on integrating the technology to make my vision of a commercial camera-phone a reality. The opportunity to do that was catalyzed by the birth of my daughter, Sophie, on June 11, 1997. My wife and business partner, Sonia, was already in labor when we arrived at the maternity center. During the next eighteen hours, I had the opportunity to make myself useful in a different way than I had expected, preceding the arrival of our baby.

In previous months, I had figured out and built the basics for sharing photos via my cell phone on what then was called “the wireless internet.” Now, with our child’s impending birth, we had the perfect opportunity to bring all the pieces together and share the magic of this special moment with friends and family around the world. I had brought along a bag with a laptop, cell phone, a digital camera, and a few other bits and pieces of equipment in it. And using some supplies I picked up from a local Radio Shack—a soldering iron, wire, and a few other items—I busied myself putting the final touches to the first “camera-phone”—my digital camera, hardwired to my cell phone, coupled with a wireless internet-based sharing infrastructure.

Our daughter and the first complete camera-phone solutions were born on the same day. With two thousand email contacts it would have been absurd to send thousands of copies of the same digital picture of Sophie over cellular networks. After connecting the system, the first camera-phone automatically and wirelessly posted pictures on a Picture-Mail website and sent back links to all our intended recipients via email—all at the touch of a button. That was in 1997, and the modernity of the system’s software architecture still endures. In the digital world elegant software is the key to innovation.

My eureka moment hit as the responses poured in from recipients eager to know how I had shared Sophie’s photos so quickly and efficiently. Sonia and I soon set up a new company called LightSurf with the mission to deliver our vision of instant, wireless picture-sharing with a system we called Picture-Mail. That same year, we began approaching the major U. S. camera and cell phone makers, but their interests were focused elsewhere, on better ways to print pictures and improve voice communications. We worked with Motorola who discussed the camera phone publically, but actual production moved slowly. However, we found a more receptive audience with a greater sense of urgency in Japan where the LightSurf blueprint was used by the carrier J-Phone and Sharp Electronics to launch the world’s first commercial camera-phone in 2000, with its sharing infrastructure, Sha-Mail (“Picture-Mail” in Japanese). A couple of years later, we successfully launched Picture-Mail in the United States with Sprint. By 2005, camera-phones and Picture-Mail were available around the world.

This photo, taken a decade after those intense eighteen hours at the maternity center, is a constant reminder of the success of that initial vision for instant visual communication. My daughter Sophie, now ten years old, turns the table on me by snapping my photo and sending it to her mom. Point, shoot, and share instantly—it couldn’t be simpler. The camera-phone has a profound impact on today’s global culture. Its ubiquity means that every moment in our lives can be captured via instantly shared photographs or videos. The camera-phone has allowed for amazing things to happen; we’ve seen the birth of citizen journalism, powerful tele-medicine applications, new ways to keep in touch when it really matters, and have a critical tool that enhances our personal freedom and safety. To all of us, it means that every moment can be shared—in the blink of an eye—from anywhere in the world. The world that is better connected is a step closer to a world perfected.

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First camera phone photograph by Philippe Kahn
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Sophie taking a picture of her father by Sophie Kahn

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