Earlier this year, the Consumer Electronics Association came out with a study that showed women are increasingly driving a greater share of technology purchases than men. Women’s heightened sense of shopping aside, it seems that the consumer electronics industry is finally warming to a discovery that has had significant impact in the home improvement industry: even in what seem like testosterone-heavy categories, women are controlling the purse strings.
Maybe I’m old-school, but I think men are still bigger gadget freaks. What seems to make more sense to me is that men are happy just to buy some technology, but that women tend to be the more discerning shoppers and therefore are making more of the decisions. At the same time, women may be finding some products that have real value for them.
Whatever the underlying cause, though, I think recognizing women’s influence in electronics purchasing decisions should have a positive impact on the product offerings that we will see going forward. I look at Philips as an example. It seems that a few years ago (i.e., a few years before most of their competitors) Philips marketers began to notice that women were an important part of the selling equation. As a result, their products began to offer a little more design sense, and their advertisements began to show more women consumers. Philips became the Target to the rest of the industry’s Wal-Mart.
I think the problem is that we still aren’t seeing enough companies following in the footsteps of Philips. Let’s take high definition television as an example.
Men love HDTV. Sports look great, action movies look great, and size matters, right? With men, bigger is better — more bragging rights, more assertiveness, more boldness. Guys want visitors to notice the 50″ or 70″ screens in our living rooms and to make comments.
Women seem a little less enamored with size. Instead of looking for a trophy piece, they seem to be asking the question, “How is the room going to look when the set is off and the screen is black?” And the answer isn’t really to just leave the TV on all the time for effect. Instead, women seem happier with smaller televisions, or at least sets that have a little more style or that are integrated into the surroundings (read “wall mounted” or “recessed”).
What’s a gadget-loving guy to do? If we want to convince our significant others that it really is okay to splurge on the bigger TV, we need to appease them somehow.
In addition to wall mounting and choosing a set that looks stylish, why not find a good use for the set when we aren’t watching TV? Televisions are great for displaying pictures — which both eliminates the black hole that would otherwise be there, and encourages more gadget envy from house guests.
According to a University of California Berkeley study, we snap about 75 billion pictures each year — and that’s only traditional film photography. Although we have become accustomed to hearing about figures in this range (hundreds of billions spent on the Iraq war, 6.5 billion people on the earth, the combined wealth of Bill Gates and friend Warren Buffett or the Walton family), 75 billion is a huge number. To put it in perspective, counting from 1 to 75 billion would take almost 800 years of non-stop effort (assuming a sustained counting rate of 3 numbers per second).
The real question is why — why do we bother to take this many pictures? Is our intention to frame them and show them off in our homes and workplaces? Do we take pictures to send to family and friends? Or do we use pictures to remind us of events, people, and places?
Of course all of these answers are correct to a greater or lesser degree, but I think there is a more fundamental reason: pictures are an insurance policy against forgetfulness. I began to consider this idea a bit in my last blog posting, and it has been gnawing at me ever since. In my experience, the vast majority of the pictures that we take do not go into frames or even albums – most remain with the envelope in which we received them from the print shop, or tucked into shoeboxes under a bed — at best, we insert them into photo albums that collect dust on a shelf. Rarely do we take out these pictures to review them — whether or not we have the intention of doing so.
In other words, pictures fill our desire to cling to our memories, to prevent ourselves from forgetting a time and place in our experience. In this way, pictures are self-promoting. When we see an old photograph, we are so shocked about how muddled the details have become in our minds that we yearn for a means to hold on and improve what we remember. But right there in front of us is the answer — a picture that retains every detail with complete integrity, which stimulates our recall just enough that we can see things close to how they really were. In a world where we are bombarded with so much information that we cannot possibly recall it all efficiently, pictures serve as on-demand mind probes that give us a degree of control over our memories.
As nice as this insurance policy against forgetfulness may be, the potential exists for our pictures to be something greater. The fundamental problem we have been dealing with for the past century or so is convenience. Pictures collect dust on shelves and in shoeboxes because it simply is not convenient to sort through them regularly, to rotate them through the frames on our walls and desks every few weeks, or to find time to choose the best ones to reprint and send to family and friends. Sure, if we had the time, we would enjoy going back through all those old memories — sharpening our recall a bit and correcting our perspective on history. But who has time to do it all?
The fact is, few of us have or will take the time to sit down and flip through a photo album on a regular basis. Rather, we have a handful of our favorite or most cherished pictures that we frame and display so that we can catch a quick glimpse and jog our memories briefly as we go about other tasks.
Now let’s imagine a world in which at least some of those frames that draw our glance from time to time actually have rolling content — that more or less each time we look, we see a different memory. Of course this is not science fiction — today’s digital picture frames can pull off this trick, and they are becoming more affordable by the week.
But why should we limit our use of pictures to our recall? One of the powerful things about pictures is that they can be a vehicle for sharing memories and experiences with others as much as reliving them ourselves. Our society reveres photographs that speak to our collective conscious through media such as National Geographic Magazine — enough that we almost seem to understand, for example, what it is to look at the earth from space, though almost none of us have ever had (or may ever have) that experience.
Of course if bringing out pictures for our own review is cumbersome, then sharing them with others is at least doubly so, with the result being that we do it all too infrequently. And there we rob each other of the opportunity to expand our understanding and experience. Once again, however, technology can make this process easier, enabling us to zap pictures across the world almost in less time than it takes for us to think of doing so.
Unfortunately, it seems that the right mix of technology to make these activities truly convenient may not be out there yet. For all of their promise, digital picture frames still seem limited in many ways (picture size and quality, software functionality, convenient access to new media, styling), especially when we consider the benefit we receive for the cost. And photo sharing sites have yet to sufficiently mediate the inconvenience of uploading pictures — or managing who sees what and when. But we have to expect that eventually someone will get these things right, and then we will be able to realize the latent potential that exists in our pictures today — the ability to enhance our memories and grow our understanding and appreciation of the world and each other. These goals seem worth the effort of taking another 75 billion pictures or so next year.
Last month I wrote a little bit about how people still seem to be stuck on printing their digital pictures. Today my goal is to further develop the case for keeping everything digital by comparing the experience of viewing printed pictures with viewing them on a display device such as a monitor.
After our third child was born a couple of years ago, my wife and I decided that we should have our family sit down for a professional photographer. After some struggles to get the children to sit still, we managed to take some great pictures, which we then had printed on canvas and framed. Altogether we bought three pictures: a large, 20″ x 24″ shot of the whole family, and two slightly smaller shots, one of the children, and one of my wife and me. Total cost: about $2,200.
Of course it is certainly possible to go to a mall or department store and get some 8″ x 10″ prints for $30 or $40, but this size is about the limit of what we can achieve with 35mm film and glossy prints — anything larger begins to look noticeably grainy. To have real portraits taken and printed is many times more expensive, meaning that this opportunity is rare or even out of reach for most families.
Now let’s consider a different viewing experience: what we get from our televisions. Most living/family¬†room television sets today measure at least 30″ in diagonal – roughly the size of the large 20″ x 24″ frame that we purchased. But today even a 30″ television looks puny compared with the monstrous high definition television sets that we seem to be gobbling up. Measuring 40″, 50″, even 65″ or more along the diagonal, we (at least the males of our race) are transfixed by the stunning colors and detail that we see on these screens. These mammoth TVs must have resolution far surpassing 35mm film, right?
Actually, no. Currently the state-of-the-art in consumer digital television is so-called “Full HD” – also known as 1080p. This format provides 1,080 lines of vertical resolution and 1,920 lines of horizontal resolution, or roughly about 2 million picture elements (megapixels). Now, all of you digital camera lovers out there know that 2 megapixels is actually not such a big deal. In fact, today a decent, $250 point-and-shoot camera from a name brand such as Canon or Nikon generally offers 5-7 megapixel resolution, and fancy single lens reflex (SLR) cameras get up to 10, 16, or even 21 megapixels. This means that the pictures my wife snaps using the ultracompact camera she carries in her purse actually oversample the resolution of an HDTV by at least 2X to 4X. And while there appears to be some debate about how to compare 35mm film resolution to what we get with a digital camera, this study from Professor John Hart at the University of Colorado suggests that we achieve roughly the same result using a 10 megapixel digital SLR as with a 35mm film SLR. In other words, digital pictures can look amazing on an HDTV measuring up to several feet in diagonal, while similar prints begin to look tired once they are larger than a piece of letter-size paper.
How can we account for this difference? I believe the issue is reflective media versus luminous media. In the case of a print, we are viewing light bouncing off the surface of the picture. Especially in the case of photos with a matte finish (where reflected light is more diffuse), it is relatively easy to see minor defects in picture quality. By contrast, in the case of luminous displays – such as televisions and monitors – the brightness of the display itself tends to wash out minor defects. Thus, when we look at pictures on these devices, we can enlarge the image many times more — giving us a more premium viewing experience. If we consider the cost of a professional photo shoot, canvas printing, and custom framing, all of a sudden what was once a rare luxury with printed pictures can now be standard fare with digital display technology.
Do you snap your pictures digitally? Increasingly, most of us do. It’s not too hard to find a decent point and shoot digital camera (name brand, 6-7 megapixel resolution, optical zoom) for $250 these days. A good, digital SLR body costs less than $1000, and many of our cell phones have built-in cameras, as well.
But what do you do with your pictures after you have taken them? Do you still go down to the photo store to get them printed? Do you print them at home on a photo-quality inkjet printer (the kind where an ink¬†refill almost costs more than the printer itself)? Surprisingly, even though we take a lot of digital photos, we still seem to have a strong desire to print them. According to a recent InfoTrends study, we printed well over 13 billion photos last year – not including those prints from traditional film negatives. At the same time, another InfoTrends study shows that we only shared 8 billion digital pictures.
Of course digital photo sharing must be growing faster, right? Catching up to traditional photo prints? Well, yes. But not at the rate you might expect. These same studies conclude that photo printing is growing at about 3% per year, while digital photo sharing is growing at a tepid 8% per year.
Where is the digital photo revolution? Why are we still shelling out $0.12, $0.15, or even $0.20 per print for photographs, when we have complete digital freedom to share, view, and archive them as we wish?
Perhaps the answer is that these activities — sharing, viewing, and archiving — are not yet as easy or satisfying as they need to be. For example, of the 8 billion pictures we shared digitally in 2006, the most prevalent method of transmission was email. But anyone who has ever waited in frustration for the download of a 10MB message (assuming your mail provider allows 10MB messages!) containing a dozen photos knows that email is not the best sharing medium.
Archiving is similarly problematic. Those of us who have experienced a hard disk crash or lost important computer files through other means know that keeping a single copy of our pictures on a desktop or laptop computer is not enough. But how many of us actually take time to back up or archive our digital photos? I even have friends that leave their pictures on their cell phones or cameras rather than deal with uploading them to a PC. For some of these, printing is a means of ensuring that at least one copy of each picture survives the next computer upgrade or accidental folder deletion.
Maybe — just maybe — if there were something that could improve our experience with digital pictures, something that could make it easier, more satisfying, and more secure to share, view, and archive our digital photos… Maybe then we would stop wasting all that money, time, and space on photo prints. Is it possible to bring about the rest of the revolution? Or will our transition to an all digital world take place slowly over the next generation or so? Is there any reason to take things slowly?
Do you have young kids? Do they like to draw? Do they draw a lot? Here’s an idea: scan their drawings into your computer and then play them back on a digital picture frame.
Our oldest daughter is seven, and when she sets her mind to it, she churns out a new drawing every couple of minutes. The paper piles up fast. Sometimes, it reminds me of the piles of newspapers we used to keep in the corner of our dorm in college — the ones for which the school fire marshals used to fine us whenever they came around for an inspection.
My wife does not like clutter (bless her soul). I knew this long before we got married, so I guess I should not have been surprised when one day I discovered that she was going around after our children and throwing their drawings in the trash.
“Wait — how will we remember what they did? How they improved?” I agonized.
“Well, we can’t keep all this,” she replied, holding up a half-inch thick stack of paper.
She was right, of course, we couldn’t keep all that paper. But I was right, too. If we threw it away, there would be no record of their progress, no opportunity to embarrass them on prom nights by dragging out books full of their artwork to show to their dates.
Then we hit upon an idea: why not scan the pictures and save them to disk? Then we could trash the originals, but we would still have a record of their work.
We had just bought one of those multifunction printers – the kind with the built-in fax machine/scanner/copier. The sheet feeder on top made it easy to scan in several drawings at once – just smooth out the pages, drop a stack on the scanner, hit the button, and come back in a half hour to save them all. Storing in JPEG format made it easy to import them to our photo organizer, where we could manage them right alongside our digital pictures.
Soon, we had the kids trained to deposit all of their drawings on top of the scanner – no more need for us to clean up. About once a week I take the pile and scan them, and then I recycle the originals. Perhaps one of the best things is that the files go onto the computer with a timestamp, so as long as I keep relatively current with the scanning, we have a general idea of when each drawing was done – something we would not have with paper copies unless we went to a lot of extra trouble to label them. And given the price of hard disks today (~$0.50 per gigabyte), storage costs about one hundredth of a cent per drawing – less than the cost of paper.
We had been going like this for a couple of months when, one day, our son discovered that we were throwing away his pictures. He was visibly hurt. “Wait a minute,” I said. Opening up the photo organizer, I quickly located a copy of the picture he had found in the recycle bin, and pulled it up on the screen for him. It was a lion he had imagined in a cage at the circus. Then I showed him a few other drawings that he had made – older ones that he had forgotten. Soon, his sisters were over at the computer and we were flipping through all of their artwork – and they were having a blast. No one ever worried about us throwing away their pictures again.