As digital cameras have outgrown their bulky origins and continued to miniaturize, some photographers and cinematographers joke that soon the "camera" itself will disappear, leaving just a lens with a chip and a screen on the back of it.
That's basically what the designer/photography nuts at Artefact have created with their WVIL concept camera, which looks like a DSLR lens with an iPhone stuck to it. But Artefact considers even that radical design as a starting point, not a destination — after all, if your camera is just a lens with a chip in the back, why not make the viewfinder detachable from the lens and really get crazy?
The WVIL concept is more about redesigning digital photography itself.
It's all right there in the name: WVIL stands for "Wireless Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens." It may only be a concept for now — Artefact has made physical models for ergonomic study and user interface mockups — oh, what a concept it is. "If you look at camera architecture, there's a missed opportunity that the camera industry has brushed away," says Markus Wierzoch, the WVIL's lead industrial designer. "With the first digital cameras, the industry was quick to replace the medium, film, with a sensor, but the rest stayed the same. But modern connectivity opens up a lot of different options, like being able to detach the lens from the viewfinder. What if you could go to a party, mount three or four lenses all over the room, and control them all wirelessly with one 'camera'?"[This viral promo for WVIL shows what the camera would look and act like if it were real — and shown off at CES. (The user experience shown here was created using CGI by Dos Rios Films.)]
Artefact began the WVIL project by imagining what they — all aspiring "prosumer" photographers who'd outgrown their point-and-shoots but didn't want a bag full of expensive gear — would want in a camera. "These kinds of aspiring photographers aren't interested in buying 30 lenses and memorizing all the buttons on their camera," says Olen Ronning, lead UX designer on the WVIL. "They care about capturing and reliving their memories with great quality and control, beyond what a point-and-shoot can deliver."
With that design principle in mind, the Artefact team rethought the digital camera as "a camera operating system" in which interchangeable, high quality lenses (each with the imaging sensor, battery, and storage built in) could be controlled from a touchscreen-based viewfinder, either as a physically integrated package (like a normal camera) or as a wirelessly connected "platform." Given the entirely new world of creative possibilities opened up by the latter scenario, Artefact claims that the WVIL concept is less about redesigning the digital camera as it is about redesigning digital photography itself.
"It's about defining a platform for innovation in both hardware and software — a camera operating system," Ronning says. "We've seen the effect that iOS had on phones. Now think of what effect a camera OS could have for photography."
The WVIL's "specifications" read more like a wish list: an 31 megapixel full-frame sensor built into every lens, wireless HD streaming capability (for when you want to capture 1080p video from a lens 20 feet away), a five-inch high-definition AMOLED touchscreen display, and a magnesium alloy baseplate with adapters for mounting standard DSLR lenses from Nikon, Canon, and Leica.
"These specs are educated guesses of what will be possible in three years."
"We think of these specs as educated guesses of what will be possible in three years," says Wierzoch. "A 31 megapixel full-frame sensor doesn't exist yet, but Kodak already has working prototypes, and you'll see them everywhere by 2013. As for the high-def wireless streaming, "it's already possible to stream 1080p video at 30 frames per second within about 30 feet," says Ronning. "That'll only get more miniaturized and mobile in the next few years."
That didn't stop the Artefact from treating their WVIL prototype as a very real design problem, and they took pains to integrate the hardware and interaction design every step of the way. "The physical controls are directly related to the software controls," says Ronning. "You have manual rings on the lens for finely controlling zoom and focus just like on a standard DSLR, and as you move them, a visual indicator ring on the touchscreen moves in conjunction. It's a one-to-one correlation." Snap the lens off, and those indicator rings become interactive controls to wirelessly manipulate the lens in real time.
But Artefact knew better than to force everything onto the touchscreen at all times: the aluminum mounting frame also has standard physical controls for shutter, shutter speed, and aperture. "We've done ergonomics tests with foam models, and 90% of what you'll want to do is accessible from the thumb on the hand that's holding the camera," Ronning adds. "It can be a one-handed operation if you want it to."
Why not have the camera itself help teach the craft?
Ronning says the WVIL's user interface was also designed with teaching in mind — because many "prosumer" shooters are eager to learn more about the finer points of their craft. Why not have the camera itself help teach them? "It's an 'auto-assist' philosophy," he explains. "There's a physical control for these standard camera interactions, and that's why there's a direct correlation on the screen to how the hardware behaves. Moving the dial helps me understand focal plane and depth of field. The UI shows you what's going on and begins to teach you the fundamentals of camera interaction."
But enough geeking out: When can we buy one? (Please excuse the drool as I type this.) Artefact's official (and purposely vague) position is that "[they]'re exploring several production options." In other words, don't hold your breath. But "as passionate aspiring photographers, we want it to exist," assures Ronning. "The best way to get that ball rolling is to envision that future and get people excited about it. We created the WVIL project as a way of starting a conversation, to provoke new thinking in the camera industry. From that perspective, we're already succeeding."