Did Polaroid Screw Up The Real-Life Instagram Camera?

Polaroid copies Instagram copying Polaroid, poorly.

Polaroid's story over the past decade or so has been an ironic one, to say the least. Buffeted on all sides by cheap digital cameras and smartphones, the instant camera maker opted to stop production of its iconic analog camera and instant film line-up back in 2008. Fast forward six years and not only are Fujifilm and the Impossible Project making millions selling instant cameras and film to the market Polaroid had prematurely abandoned, but the most popular photo platform on Earth, Instagram, is designed to essentially be a digital recreation of a Polaroid instant film camera, right down to the icon. Talk about squandered opportunities.

Given this tragicomic corporate journey, it's no wonder that when I stopped by the official Polaroid booth at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last year, two of their floor representatives were openly drunk as they gave me a tour, because why not? All they were showing off were cheap iPad cases. But this year, Polaroid is actually showing something cool: the long-awaited Socialmatic camera, a cleverly designed instant camera that looks like an app icon and mashes-up Polaroid's iconic heritage with the digital/social networking age that followed.

The new, updated Socialmatic design.

Don't get too excited, though. This is Polaroid we're talking about, and if they've proven anything over the last decade, it's that there's seemingly nothing they can't mess up.

Appropriate to a company whose bearings have been as confused as Polaroid's over the last few years, the Socialmatic's path to market has been a circuitous one. Back in May 2012, designer Antonio De Rosa imagined the Socialmatic as a real-life Instagram camera. Not only was the camera shaped like a 3-D version of the photo network's official icon, but its interface was simply the Instagram app itself. The clever twist of the Socialmatic? Not only could you use it to take pictures to share on Instagram, but it would print out your snapshots on Impossible Project instant film.

Polaroid's Socialmatic looks okay in renderings.

De Rosa tried to raise funds to build the Socialmatic through Indiegogo, but failed. He then entered what he described to Co.Design as a "long and difficult negotiation" with Polaroid to bring the Socialmatic to market. And now it's here, albeit with some design compromises along the way that robbed the original Socialmatic concept of some of its polish.

That's not to say it looks terrible. But while the original Socialmatic concept made the camera look like a 2-D icon turned into a candy-like three-dimensional Chiclet, the new Socialmatic looks decidedly cheaper and cruder, almost like a design knock-off. No wonder when we asked De Rosa if the deal had affected the Socialmatic's design, he listlessly shrugged and said, "Could be."

But nowhere near as impressive as in previous concepts from 2012 and 2013.

It's not all bad. The guts of the Socialmatic are plenty powerful, and feature both a 14-megapixel front sensor and a two-megapixel rear camera, as well as a 4.5-inch touch screen. The specs also include built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, four GB of internal memory, and a Micro SD card slot for expanding your storage.

You can still use the Socialmatic to print your photos, but instead of printing them on Impossible Project's AGFA-based instant film (which would be most in-keeping with the Polaroid heritage that inspired Instagram), Polaroid is using their inkless printing technology ZINK to print out two-by-three-inch color stickers. As for digital sharing, the Socialmatic runs Android, which should allow you to upload photos you take with the Socialmatic Camera on any social network with an Android app, including Twitter, Facebook and—of course—Instagram.

And it looks even worse in person. Photo by Carl Alviani

But all of this should be heavily qualified with the caveat: "in theory." Despite its CES debut this year, how well the Socialmatic actually works, what it will cost, and when it will be released are all big question marks. According to The Verge, Polaroid wasn't even showing off a working demo unit at this year's show. Polaroid won't say how much the Socialmatic will cost, and they will only cop to a release date "Fall 2014" for the Socialmatic to show up on store shelves.

None of which inspires confidence, to say the least. In fact, given Polaroid's bizarre missteps in recent years, one wonders if the very worst thing that could have happened to De Rosa's brilliant and daring Socialmatic concept was for it to be licensed by the spiritual father of the app that inspired it.

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5 Comments

  • This really misses the mark for me. The only this can do that any smartphone can't is print off a low-quality 2" x 3" sticker and is that really worth the space it takes up in your pocket? I could see buying something like this as a novelty item if the price point was low enough (say $29.99) but I'm sure it won't be anywhere near that.

  • This is missing so much on so many levels for me. Where's the soul, the process, the magic? This is simply trying to capitalize on the Polaroid name and nothing more. Polaroid means film to me, not printing. My kids are captivated by the magic and surprise of my completely 'manual' Automatic 100 camera... will the picture turn out? Do we need to shake it? It's cold, should the picture go in our pocket before we peel it off? How long do we have to wait? Not a simple point and print. The Impossible Project and Fuji deserve props for taking real risk and putting skin in the instant image game, not these guys. I have recently re-discovered my Henry Dreyfuss-designed, Polaroid 100 Land Camera after years of deep basement storage... beauty, functionality and pure joy. The original Instagram.

  • Simon Cohen

    Hmm - I wonder if there's a way to even accomplish the goal of printing to the Impossible Project's instant film stock. It's compatible with original Polaroid cameras which means the film needs to be exposed to light directly. I don't know of a way a digital cam could do this - at least not with any digital manipulation as per the socialmatic concept, thus the need for the Zink prints. The real question is, why didn't they use this as the perfect excuse to create a polaroid-spec zink format print, complete with the classic white border?

  • Vincent Massimino

    IT's not that this story is poorly written, or even remotely false - but that "Polaroid" is a name only. The company that Land created, the produced the SX-70 and Land Cameras effectively ended decades ago. The company called Polaroid that stopped production on Instant Film had no concerns with film, photography, or brand image. (Wikipedia covers this in the introduction; there's also the fantastic "Instant", etc).

    I find it woeful that the current version of Polaroid continues to exist. It couldn't be worth much, could it? No more than 100 million dollars, easily. Couldn't Facebook, or Apple, or Fuji just take the bullet, buy the company, and restore it to it's former glory? I would rather have Facebook spend a bit of cash and properly make "Polaroid" synonymous with "Instagram." Merge the brands - it's better than the cheap, plastic, nonsense cameras they're producing now.