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Digital cameras: Episode 2 of Setapp’s original Ahead of Its Time Podcast

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16 min read

Welcome to the second episode of Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future. 

In this episode, we discuss the past and the future of cameras. In 1972, Steven Sasson walked into the boardroom at Kodak, holding the future of photography in his hands – the world’s first electronic camera. Kodak execs didn’t recognize the worth of Steven’s invention back then and missed a one-in-a-hundred years opportunity. 

But Steven’s work didn’t go in vain. Two decades later, Eric Fossum used it to fit an entire digital camera on one computer chip, setting the stage for the first smartphone cameras. 

What’s ahead? While it might seem there’s nothing more to invent, Fossum’s new startup is likely to prove us wrong — right now, they are working on a new photography technology to help us see deeper into space. Hear Steven’s and Eric’s fascinating story firsthand. 

Show notes: 

Transcript:

Eric Fossum (00:01):

Can you hear me? I can see the audio bar moving on my monitor. Okay. I'm Eric Fossum. I am a inventor and entrepreneur, and you probably heard that sound come through because... I gotta close my background application and then we'll start again.

Julia Furlan (00:22):

If you want a taste of just how profoundly the digital age changed photography, consider this. More pictures will be taken worldwide in the next two minutes than were taken during the first 150 years of photography, and the vast majority of those pictures, more than 85% of them will be taken with a smartphone camera, a camera most people use every day that wouldn't exist without Eric Fossum.

Eric Fossum (00:50):

And my main thing that I do is the image sensor chip that's in cameras, all kinds of cameras.

Julia Furlan (00:59):

Digital photography has changed the way that we see the world and it's changed us, too. It drives social media, it's redefined journalism, and it shapes our collective memory, but digital photography wouldn't have the widespread cultural impact it does today if Eric had never dreamt of going to space when he was a kid.

Eric Fossum (01:20):

And of course, grew up with the space program, watched all the launches landing on the moon in 1969, all those things. I knew I didn't have good enough eyesight to ever become a pilot or astronaut, so I knew I wasn't going that way, but I always wanted to be involved in the space program somehow, and of course, I got that opportunity. Many years later

Julia Furlan (01:44):

At NASA, Eric was tasked with re-imagining image sensor technology, and that's exactly what he did. The camera he invented to help NASA explore our solar system eventually found its way into consumer cameras, and now is in every smartphone. Today, Eric is developing the next era of camera technology with his Quanta Image Sensor or QIS.

Eric Fossum (02:06):

Yeah, the Quanta Image Sensor represents a breakthrough in image sensing technology, because we can actually record every single photon that hits the image sensor one at a time, and that means that we can record in the dimmest possible light.

Julia Furlan (02:23):

This technology brought photography to the masses and QIS technology might allow us to see further into space than ever before. Eric Fossum has changed the world of digital photography, but this story doesn't start with him. It starts with his friend, Steven Sasson.

Eric Fossum (02:41):

The first modern digital camera was invented by my friend, Steve, at Kodak, and nobody at Kodak understood what it was good for. Too bad for him.

Julia Furlan (02:59):

I'm Julia Furlan, and this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp, a show about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future. Setapps versatile app subscription service empowers you to step into a new era of productivity. Eric's right. It is too bad for Steven that Kodak couldn't see the value in his digital camera. Lucky for him though, former president, Barack Obama, didn't make the same mistake.

Barack Obama (03:29):

Thank you.

Eric Fossum (03:29):

Barack Obama is a bit of a photographer himself. I know the house photographer used to sometimes comment on Barack Obama would steal his camera and start taking pictures.

Barack Obama (03:39):

Welcome to the White House.

Julia Furlan (03:41):

This is Steven Sasson. In November 2010, Steven was among an impressive group of inventors receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama.

Speaker 5 (03:52):

For the invention of the digital camera...

Julia Furlan (03:53):

Who at the mention of the famous invention...

Speaker 5 (03:55):

Which is revolutionized...

Julia Furlan (03:56):

Smiled and pointed at the pool of photographers across the room. There was a sweet, full circle moment to posing in the White House before a small army of photographers, each holding the technology he was being honored for inventing.

Steven Sasson (04:10):

And as they were reading the citation about the digital camera, the president started pointing at me going, "This is the guy. All you guys back there, this is the guy." I had to laugh at that, and then before he put the medal around my neck, before he did, he turned and looked at the whole audience and said...

Barack Obama (04:28):

"This picture better be good."

Steven Sasson (04:29):

This picture better be good.

Julia Furlan (04:34):

It began with radio. Steven grew up in Brooklyn, and by the time he was 13, he was already a licensed HAM radio operator. He was a resourceful kid. Each time a neighbor threw out an old radio or television, they might not have known it, but they were fueling his passion for electronics.

Steven Sasson (04:53):

And I would drag the thing home, and I would basically do an autopsy on it. Basically, take all the useful parts off of it, which was obviously the tubes, the capacitors, and resistors, transformers, things like that and I would leave the carcass in my alleyway, which annoyed my parents to no end because these things were big steel chassis with lots of wires in them, but that's how I got my parts, and I set up a little laboratory in a closet off of my hallway. We had a very small house, so this closet, it was really a riot, if you ever saw it. You could hardly fit in it.

Julia Furlan (05:32):

Consumer photography had changed very little over the generations leading up to the 1970s. It all revolved around film. Let me give you a super simple lesson about how film-based cameras work. When the camera takes a picture, the lens opens very briefly and exposes the film to light bouncing off of whatever thing you're pointing the lens at. This light exposure burns an imprint into the film and ta-da! An image is imprinted in the roll of film in the camera. Light plays a pretty important role when it comes to film. It's really the basis of all photography technology, new and old. Before the 70s, when you finished a roll of film, you would drop it off at a pharmacy or a camera store, and it would be sent away to some mysterious location for photo finishing in these big, elaborate chemical filled machines, but along with the arrival of feathered hair and polyester bell bottoms, the 70s was a start of in-store photo finishing in just an hour, for a premium price of course.

Julia Furlan (06:39):

Among the mighty camera brands, there was a lot of competition. The big players were names like Nikon, Pentax, Cannon, and Olympus, but there was only one big name when it came to film, and that name was Kodak. The Kodak film empire was founded by George Eastman in 1880. At its peak, Kodak had a 90% share of the American film market. Then in 1974, Kodak hired a young engineer named Steven Sasson. He was asked to look into a new kind of electronic circuit technology called a charged couple device, or CCD. People experimenting with CCDs discovered that they were a hundred times more sensitive to light than film. Kodak thought they might be useful for imaging and photography.

Steven Sasson (07:34):

I decided to try to build a camera with no moving parts at all, and that was strictly to annoy the mechanical engineers that were around me. There's nothing rational about that choice. I thought I would build an all electronic camera. We were applying technologies that we had never combined before. Analog, digital, power supplies, the CCD device, which was extremely weird. I didn't know if this was ever going to work. In fact, many times, I thought, I'm out of my mind trying to build this stupid thing. It's really complicated.

Julia Furlan (08:08):

There was no project plan or reviews and with no budget, parts had to be scavenged.

Steven Sasson (08:15):

Much like what I did in Brooklyn, I wandered around and lifted parts, basically, and I had no infrastructure to look at any of this. Nobody was doing digital imaging back then. I had to build everything. It was interesting, but what kept me going was just the curiosity to see if I could do it.

Julia Furlan (08:35):

After months of curious creation, it was time for digital photography to experience its Neil Armstrong moment. Around a long boardroom table, Steven showed the fancy Kodak execs his invention.

Steven Sasson (08:47):

I had gone from the back lab person that nobody knew what the hell he was doing, to all of a sudden now getting a lot of interest. Too much interest, actually, from my view.

Julia Furlan (08:58):

The object of all that interest was a prototype and let's be real, it didn't look pretty.

Steven Sasson (09:06):

Picture an Erector Set gone crazy and sitting on top of this little Erector Set structure, which is roughly the size of a toaster, is a blue box, and in the blue box is a big lens sticking out the top, and on the side is a cassette tape of that blue box where the image is restored, and there's a button to take a picture and a view finder look through.

Julia Furlan (09:31):

Steven enters the boardroom holding this odd looking contraption. In the middle of the room, there's a long narrow conference table with six people sitting on either side. Then, he points the camera at the Kodak execs and he snaps a photo.

Steven Sasson (09:47):

And then, once the tape stopped moving, that means the image was recorded onto that tape. Took about 23 seconds, as I remember, and then we popped the tape out and we put it back into another tape player and then up would pop the image on a television set, but the minute the picture went up, I lost control of every meeting because the questions started coming at me.

Julia Furlan (10:11):

The discussion turned to price. Steven estimated that the camera would cost about $400, but at this point, computers were still like the size of a room in your house, so people would need a playback device so that they could actually see their pictures. He'd heard about work being done at Apple by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in Silicon Valley, and he wondered if the home computer might one day be used to display digital images, but the execs started in with all kinds of questions about cost and young Steven was overwhelmed.

Steven Sasson (10:45):

I remember one marketing fellow, he said, "Okay, how much for the board from the California guys?" And I says, "Well, it's about 700 bucks or something." He said, "So for $1100, you can make way worse pictures than a fully loaded Instamatic for $35. Why are we talking about this?" I didn't have a good answer.

Julia Furlan (11:04):

Kodak had no idea that their 25 year old engineer, just two years on the job, was holding the future of photography. The digital age, home computing, and the internet, those things were all years away. Of course, photographic film was one of the most profitable consumer products ever created. So, why worry? Looking back, Steven realizes his presentation smacked of corporate blasphemy.

Steven Sasson (11:34):

Hey, we don't need film anymore. That was kind of a big statement. I didn't say it that way. I was smart enough not to say it quite that way, but that's effectively what I was saying.

Julia Furlan (11:44):

Kodak didn't shut down Steven's work, but it wouldn't bet on it either. This became painfully clear the day that a senior Kodak vice president visited the lab after Steven's supervisor had posed a question.

Steven Sasson (11:57):

When he asked this vice president, should we keep working? Should we invest more money in it? He said, "Yes, keep working on it and I hope you fail," and just walked out.

Julia Furlan (12:07):

It's easy to see from here with hindsight that if Kodak had seen itself as an imaging company instead of a chemical film company, maybe they would've taken a chance on Steven Sasson's toaster size contraption, and maybe, just maybe, Kodak would've thrived instead of filing for bankruptcy in 2012, but the piece missing from that narrative is that nobody was ready for Steven's invention. Kodak wasn't ready, consumers weren't ready, and the tech world wasn't ready. It would take another inventor with another breakthrough to take digital photography from a big mechanical thing to the camera that's in your phone right now, and whose next creation may usher in the new era of digital photography.

Eric Fossum (12:57):

Steve's a good friend, so I hope he doesn't take this the wrong way, and I think he'll be the first to admit it.

Julia Furlan (13:01):

Here's Eric Fossum again.

Eric Fossum (13:03):

It was not a game changer at all because Kodak pretty much patted him on the back and said, "Good job, Steve. Now go do your regular work and we'll call you if we're interested."

Julia Furlan (13:13):

He's the guy who thought up the next giant step for the digital photography that Steven Sasson pioneered. He created the CMOS image censorship. Maybe it's not a household name, but I bet you, you own one. In college, Eric was researching digital camera technology, specifically CCD, or Charged Couple Device, which was the same imaging technology that Steven used to create the digital camera. Coaxed by a NASA recruiter, he joined their jet propulsion lab, also known as JPL in California. Suddenly, he was working on some of NASA's most important spacecraft and they needed a newer better imaging system.

Eric Fossum (13:56):

Well, these cameras would fly on spacecrafts for years and arrive at a destination like Jupiter, taking images of clouds on Jupiter, the red spot, the moons, which are really strange when you see them close up or go to Saturn and taking pictures of the rings of Saturn, so really cool stuff.

Julia Furlan (14:19):

Cool, but big. Remember camcorders from back in the 80s? They were huge. They had massive batteries that wore down and wore out pretty easily, and it sounds wild to think about, but the same CCD technology that was filming your cousin's birthday party, NASA was sending it into space. Like Steven's prototype and the video camera that somebody lugged to the family reunion, NASA's early digital cameras were gigantic and required a whole bunch of extra electronic components to make it work. This obviously isn't ideal if you're trying to design the lightest possible spacecraft.

Eric Fossum (14:59):

My first assignment was to solve the problems they were having with CCDs, and that was a real head scratcher. We were trying to build cameras that were smaller, so the cameras were the size of a small refrigerator perhaps, and it included all the electronics required to operate the CCD, even if the CCD itself wasn't so big, the electronics to operate the CCD were huge, and that also took a lot of power and basically, make those cameras that were the size of a small refrigerator, make them shoebox size, or we set a goal of a coffee cup, and so how could we do that?

Julia Furlan (15:37):

That's when Eric wondered, suppose we take all that external gear these cameras need to work and incorporate it all into the image censor chip itself? With this idea in mind, his team started building a prototype. As NASA weighed reward against risk.

Eric Fossum (15:53):

Right from the beginning, I knew it potentially could change everything, but for NASA spacecraft, the science community was thinking, why should we take the risk of a new technology if we don't really have to?

Julia Furlan (16:08):

A lot of folks at NASA, weren't too keen on sending a spacecraft to observe some distant planet only to have the fancy new camera fail to work when it switched on. A few colleagues embraced Eric's CMOS chip right away, when others told him his new camera tech would never displace the tried and true CCDs, so he persisted.

Eric Fossum (16:31):

We pretty quickly built the very first demonstration prototype chips and they worked immediately. As soon as we turned them on, they worked, and that's kind of what was the mother of invention for me for CMOS image sensors.

Julia Furlan (16:45):

Eric's new technology was called the CMOS Image Sensor. CMOS stands for Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor and it was a big step forward because Eric was effectively able to put an entire camera on a single computer chip. That meant that they didn't need to pack all sorts of operating equipment around the sensor. Now, the sensor itself did everything needed to capture an image. Suddenly, it was possible to put digital cameras on spacecraft and in all kinds of small places, it took two decades to convince them, but NASA eventually gave the CMOS chip the role of a lifetime. They sent it to photograph Mars in 2020 aboard the Perseverance Rover.

Speaker 7 (17:28):

Perseverance has now slowed to subsonic speed. This allows both the radar and the cameras to get their first look at the surface. Current velocity is...

Eric Fossum (17:37):

And they put 23 cameras, or something like that, on that spacecraft. So, they didn't just do it halfway. They went all out, which is good, because if you remember all the pictures of the parachute opening and the landing, and very first pictures after landing, all taken with CMOS image sensor technology that NASA developed for that exact purpose 20 years before that happened.

Julia Furlan (18:02):

Decades before Perseverance and his technology touched down on Mars, Eric took a giant leap of his own. He thought his CMOS chip could have applications here on earth, too, so Eric and some of his pals from the jet propulsion lab started their own company, Photobit. Eventually, Eric was approached about incorporating the CMOS chip into consumer level cameras.

Eric Fossum (18:25):

The first time that we heard about this, the company came to us and said, "We had this idea that girls in Japan that do shopping might want to share their shopping experience with their friends, so they could take out their phone and take a picture of something and send it to their friends and get their feedback on it." I heard that and I was like, "You want to use my NASA technology for what?" This is crazy, but maybe not so crazy.

Julia Furlan (18:58):

And in that moment, his company, photography, hell, the whole world changed. In the decades since Eric Fossum sold Photobit, his legacy is everywhere. Today, CMOS chips are in just about every camera you can think of, including smart doorbell cameras, webcams, and even the tiny pill cameras that you swallow to film your digestive system. Each year, there are four billion cameras made, about a hundred cameras every second, that use the CMOS chip.

Eric Fossum (19:31):

I had that, holy cow, this is really something moment going to a concert and having everybody that you can see in the stadium holding up their camera, trying to take a picture of the band. You could see the light from all the phones, all trying to take that picture. Wow, every one of those people is using my technology.

Julia Furlan (19:57):

Odds are good that Eric Fossum isn't done changing the world. Today, he's working on his next big idea called the Quanta Image Sensor, or QIS. It's a new chip capable of computational imaging that might one day give your camera vision powers worthy of a comic book hero. This chip enables a camera to see a single photon, which is the smallest measurable unit of light. To put that in context, the average light bulb produces about a billion billion photons per second. Yes, billion billion is a number. Imagine just how many photons it takes to create the cozy evening light in your home or to light an NFL field for Monday Night Football, and how groundbreaking is it to have a machine that can pick out one from all of those billions? The ability to see where there's almost no light could yet again, transform photography and imaging and unlock new scientific frontiers. With QIS, Eric has come full circle from his days at the jet propulsion lab. His new startup, Gigajot, is conceiving future NASA instruments to look deeper into space than ever before.

Eric Fossum (21:10):

Yeah. It's interesting to speculate what we might be able to see if we can see better because we don't know what we're not seeing right now, but for sure, looking for planets around neighboring star systems to see them in greater clarity and perhaps we'll discover new things in the universe, perhaps distant galaxies, or even the beginning of time, literally the beginning of time.

Julia Furlan (21:35):

Though conceived for space exploration, just like the CMOS chip, its potential for more down to earth applications is enormous. Eric says it could be applied to security and car cameras, cellular imaging, night vision goggles, and of course, smartphones. It's possible we could see Quanta smartphone cameras in just a few years, so there will likely be plenty more, holy cow, this is really something moments, for Eric in the near future. Meanwhile, Steven Sasson has had his own holy cow moments watching not just how his innovation changed an industry, but the way people experience photography.

Steven Sasson (22:15):

The very nature of photography started to change. Up to this point for the hundred years beforehand, you wanted to take the best quality image you could because you were going to remember this moment and you wanted to remember it accurately and artistically, but now all of a sudden, pictures became instantly shareable and so, it became not a remembrance, but a form of casual conversation.

Julia Furlan (22:40):

Yet, Steven laments that today's results intensive business environment makes inventions like his much more difficult.

Steven Sasson (22:48):

The thing I'd notice today is, we tend to be more efficient. Everything's happening faster. People feel like they don't have time to fail, and one of the luxuries I had was, this story was 25 to 30 years long, and I think because we're so efficient today, everybody has to be a success right away. You can lose your enthusiasm, you can lose your hope, and so people get afraid to fail, and when I talk to young people, I tell them, "Pick challenging projects. Pick them based on their impact, not on their probability of success, because you're going to fail either way. Fail at something worthwhile."

Julia Furlan (23:31):

As young engineers just starting out, Steven Sasson and Eric Fossum probably never imagined that they would change the face of modern photography or that the world would take notice, but Eric realizes that even though he's received many accolades for his work, there's always family, in this case, his daughter, to keep him humble.

Eric Fossum (23:52):

I didn't know Steve up until that moment, that we were being inducted the same year at the National Veterans Hall of Fame, and after the ceremony was over, we were standing around all in our tuxes and...

Steven Sasson (24:05):

His daughter came up to us at the table and she said, "Well, let's get a picture of the two of you together."

Eric Fossum (24:11):

We kind of all straightened up and straightened out our clothes, stood up straight. My daughter reached into her handbag and pulled out a disposable film camera and snapped a picture while we were both like, what? What are you doing?

Steven Sasson (24:24):

Said she wanted to make sure it comes out, and I think I said to Eric, "Kids." And he said, "Yeah." That was funny.

Julia Furlan (24:43):

Digital photography is unlocking new frontiers in medicine, and when pointed at empty space, may give us our first glimpse at the beginning of time. Quanta photography may draw light from our greatest mysteries sooner than we think. When Steven Sasson imagines the technology, he was rejected outright. No one could see its possibilities or that it would eventually topple the mighty Kodak empire. It's a tragic reminder that imagination is the engine that drives discovery. This is a lesson that can't be far from the mind of Eric Fossum, who may soon be persuading the world to find the scantest traces of light in the darkest places. 

I'm Julia Furlan, and this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp. Working on your next big thing? Setapp’s productivity toolkit will help you stay focused and get stuff done. Head over to setapp.com to see if Setapp can help you bring your ideas to life.

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