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.
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.
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."
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.
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.