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Interview With David Tonge of the Division: The Future Form of the Camera

10.07.14 | By
Interview With David Tonge of the Division: The Future Form of the Camera

Industrial designer, David Tonge’s portfolio is as diverse as esteemed. In the 1990s, Tonge worked alongside design luminaries Bill Moggridge and Naoto Fukasawa as Industrial Design Director at IDEO Product Development in San Francisco, and currently operates international design consultation firm, the Division with partner, Nicole Hodgkinson. Recipient of various design awards in the UK, Germany, Japan and the United States, Tonge’s designs have been exhibited at the London Design Museum.

Currently splitting his time between a home base in London and regularly exploring Tokyo, David was kind enough to take spare some time to share the details about the Division’s latest concept spurred on by an affinity for digital photography and the hope to make it a better experience for all.

David Tonge and Nicole Hodgkinson Founded The division in 2003, a design studio headquartered in London.

David Tonge and Nicole Hodgkinson founded London based design studio, the Division, in 2003.

Could you describe the impetus for this digital imaging design? Was the motivation inspired by a personal experience or an observation of colleagues/friends behavior in regards to smartphone photography?

A simple observation is that camera manufacturers, maybe except Canon and Nikon, are struggling. Yet the more marginal manufacturers insist on continuing to develop the same kinds of products, albeit smarter, with more higher (but, similar) specs.

At the moment, and for the last few years, the focus has been on the retro-style (e.g. the Olympus Pen series) which the Panasonic Lumix is an example of. But these cameras are essentially offer the same [design] interface; from a design language perspective it’s all about the lens. None are particularly user focused, relative to smartphones.

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Meanwhile smart phones have been making taking photos easier, with more intuitive interfaces and less photography language fluency required. They are designed for people who don’t care about apertures and film speed, but do care about recording and sharing. In addition to my cameras, I am also using my phone for the same purposes. But crucially the accessibility of the smartphone experience is directing people away from using compact cameras. You do have to ask,”Why have another camera when I already have a phone in my pocket?”

“What interface would get smart phone users excited about using a dedicated camera?”

So our goal was to start from a user’s view perspective: beginning with a phone, then adding features which would allow them to improve the average person’s photography skills with a better lens. And from a manufacturer’s view point: if we adjust our approach to meet this user half way, what characteristics would the device offer? How would it relate to the classic camera and current mobile devices?

Basically our feeling is that this meshing between digital with mechanical can lead to something more interesting compared with how the manufacturers are currently thinking.

Future_Form_of_the_Camera_tricolour

Understanding this is a concept-only at the moment, what do you ideally envision the technical specifications for this device?

It’s a very haptic experience. As we get used to the swipe, pinch, and touch [interaction] on the smart phone, why not use the same gestures with a camera? Therefore we felt the external front lens of the camera should also be a haptic surface. The lens form is faceted in shape, giving your finger tips a reference point, a nod to the old days. A user would move their fingers around the lens to make adjustments – like to zoom or adjust the aperture – in the same way we do with most current cameras. The lens itself stays static and is non-removable.

…the external front lens of the camera should also be a haptic surface. The lens form is faceted in shape, giving your finger tips a reference point, a nod to the old days.

However, the touch sensitive surface display changes; the lens is like a mini array of individual displays arranged as facets. Each faceted area would not only display aperture settings, but also ISO or other user adjustments (colour, B&W, etc.); the user could preselect to be make adjustments using this lens interface versus the rear display.

We imagine some people would use this haptic display lens to make adjustments, while others would be happy swiping and pinching on the rear display. Or maybe a combination of both, depending on the situation. The lens itself would be optically a 28-30 mm model – the classic reportage lens size. But it’s a concept, so no reason why we couldn’t imagine this couldn’t be a SLR type or 18-70 zoom lens either.

Similarly, which materials would you use in construction?
Much the same as a high-end smart phone.

Future-Form-of-the-Camera-Screens

Could you tell me more about the software/interface side of the envisioned user experience?

As you can see from the concept images, its largely a mobile phone interface in terms of navigation. We envision a simple language suitable for a person with beginner-photography skills. But the device would also be switchable to prosumer-mode for those who want further controls.

One crucial feature envisioned central to this design revolves around image filtering. Because we spend so much time trying to organise our data (and the data is getting bigger, thanks to HD resolution images), we want to have simple filter options available using the camera’s on-board capabilities. For example, we could create filter sets formulated not only by light conditions or subject, but also location: “London”, “People”, “Sunny”. We can rid of low-light and stabilize and compensate for user shaking, because the camera can recognize these parameters in realtime and make adjustments accordingly, while also making each of these features automatically or easily accessible.

Because the photography industry still skews toward a specs-oriented market, camera makers build incredible sensors and smart systems to capture photographs, but seem to research less about the inverse: reviewing and filtering shots. This shortcoming is one reason I believe the camera manufacturers are suffering.

The Division's previous projects in other consumer mobile device design helped shape their latest camera design. Their flexible e-ink displays - Plastic Logic -  was designed to be the "iPod of books".

The Division’s previous projects in other consumer mobile device design helped shape their latest exploratory concept. Their flexible e-ink displays above – Plastic Logic – was designed to be the “iPod of books”.

It seems the design shares many recognizable attributes with the Apple iPhone (or perhaps the Samsung Galaxy series) in form and function. But which digital cameras do you find inspiring/admirable in features currently on the market. What is their glaring deficiencies you hope to improve upon?

I am a photography enthusiast myself and use Leica, Canon and Ricoh cameras. In addition, some of our clients are in the camera realm, so we are somewhat close to the industry, without disclosing too much.

The camera’s shape is a result of the function, really. Lens on the front, screen on the back. We decided not to do the usual camera grips and surfaced form, because once you begin adding these features and the thickness which comes with them, it defeats the purpose. So, yes, it looks a bit like a phone with the exception of the haptic lens part, but I believe it’s an evocation of both the old and the new. If we were asked to develop this design further, then the form could move in a number of directions from here.

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As for current digital cameras, I use a Leica X2. It’s a fixed lens camera, so if you want to zoom you walk forward! Lens quality and colour are absolutely fabulous as you would expect from Leica. I also use a Ricoh GR – also has a fixed lens camera – but with an incredible macro-feature which allows me to get within a couple of centimeters from the object. Neither camera is loaded with features, but do the basic job brilliantly.

What is lacking with both models though is their usability for a non-camera person. Leica has made some effort to fix this with the Leica T, however I think the T physically borrows too much from Apple. I believe Leica should be more radical in some way, but its capturing a demand for this kind of collectible tech gear. I do wonder how many photographers will be carrying it…

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The other cameras which I find interesting are made by Sigma. With a radical huge sensor, and a very strange but challenging form, their DP2 Quattro is an interesting camera I can appreciate. Also the current Ricoh Theta shoots 360 shots and is designed to work in conjunction with a smartphone…more of an accessory for a smartphone [than a traditional camera], like the endless health and other activity devices designed as iOS or Android peripherals.

Apart from Canon and Nikon’s real pro and prosumer models, everyone else is looking for guidance. Which is why I believe the smartphone manufacturers are more likely to innovate ahead of traditional photography gear companies, and we will likely see the death of a few more high street camera manufacturers, just as we are seeing in the the PC business due to tablets… an inevitable end for all but the “smartest” camera makers.

A special thanks to David Tonge and the Division for the interview and photos.

Gregory Han is Tech Editor of Design Milk. A Los Angeles native with a profound love and curiosity for design, hiking, tide pools, and road trips, a selection of his adventures and musings can be found at gregoryhan.com.