Advances in imaging technology a visual feast

New flat-panel displays and televisions that leave LCD and plasma in the digital dust, colour matching software that can replicate electronic images in strikingly true colours under any sort of lighting, and collaborative technologies that allow images to be manipulated on a screen with a mere hand gesture.

These are but a few of the advances in imaging technology that businesses and consumers can expect to be using in the next few years. They come courtesy of Canon Inc., the giant Japanese maker of imaging, print and photographic equipment, which showed off a wide assortment of next-generation products during its Canon Expo 2005 in New York City a few days ago. Demonstrations of upcoming products as well as still-in-development prototypes were the highlight for approximately 1,100 Canon business partners and journalists.

The event itself was all about image – or more precisely, imaging. Digital displays, multifunction peripheral gear, colour management software, digital photography equipment, electronic document software and much, much more were on display, much of it destined for legal, financial, medical and general office use, as well as for small offices and consumers.

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Among the most impressive and talked about innovations at the conference was Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Displays (SEDs) that render video and digital images in stunning detail. Seeing was definitely believing, as visitors were treated to a demonstration of identical sets of video images fed into SED, plasma and LCD displays. The SED display was in a class by itself, in terms of the vivid colours and the detail of the images.

Canon says SED technology has been in development since 1986, and next year the company plans to market a large-screen SED product that will be “far superior to plasma and LCD.” According to Canon CEO and president Fujio Mitarai, in 2007 a new facility will produce 75,000 SED TVs. In addition, the company plans to market SEDs as image display devices for education and business applications, as well as output displays for Canon’s photographic and workgroup equipment. A joint venture was established with Toshiba in 2004, and that company is reportedly moving ahead with mass production plans of its own.

Another impressive demonstration showed a conference room setting where a group of business professionals collaborated on a project using Canon’s latest imaging displays and software. The core pieces of technology used were a high-definition “intelligent” projector, multimedia tablet computers, a 64-inch rear-projection display (about one-third the depth of similar displays) and an application called the image runner.

The group members were shown simultaneously manipulating various images as they conferenced. Each was able to use tablet computers to call up various charts and other graphic or video streams, and have these displayed on two large SEDs. Everything was wirelessly connected and routed through the intelligent projector to the rear-projection displays. Amazingly, these images could be selected, recalled and even moved from one display to another through the use of voice commands and hand gestures. At the same time, the group collectively used a digital whiteboard that each could draw upon. The possibilities here for business workgroups are intriguing, to say the least.

Yet another application – colour management software called Kyuanos – showed how colours and textures on real fabrics can be replicated to precisely match those shown on-screen in a digital illustration. This colour-matching capability is vitally important in industries such as clothing manufacture, where a designer starts with an idea, mocks it up on a computer, then has the image sent to various other collaborators such as fabric makers, tailors and other designers to create the real thing. The problem is that different light sources and screen properties can distort colours and textures – what appears as a colour shade in natural sunlight can look radically different under fluorescent lighting. The Kyuanos colour management application can recreate an accurate digital reproduction of colour and texture on video displays, compensating for the light source, including various shades of natural or artificial lighting.

In the world of fashion, the rendering of exactly coloured and textured images is critical, and to do these things in a virtual high-tech way makes the design process highly efficient and collaborative. But Canon’s Kyuanos technology is also a tool for the masses. It will be incorporated in Windows Vista – Microsoft’s next-generation 64-bit operating system software, formerly called Longhorn, due for release late next year – as its colour management technology.

In fact, many of the imaging technologies previewed at the expo are expected to find their way into the hands of workers at small and medium businesses before too long. Mason Olds, vice-president of Canon’s digital imaging group, cited the example of five years ago when small businesses might have purchased a limited-function copier, but can today affordably buy an all-in-one multifunction, high-quality printer, copier, fax and scanner.

“Prices keep coming down and capabilities keep going up,” Mr. Olds says. “Ten years ago a bubble-jet printer was an oversized large-format product that did wide-format [printing]. You can buy that product today for about $200, versus $120,000 ten years ago.”

Likewise, many of the cutting-edge products on display in New York will, over a relatively short time, become affordable equipment for the average workplace, Mr. Olds predicts.

And those products will likely be interconnected by high-speed and wireless technologies. Canon officials say they are expecting an increasingly “connected” world that will drive imaging technology to new heights, and there were plenty of demonstrations – from images downloaded wirelessly from a camera to a nearby computer or printer, to photos transmitted across the country to a remote wireless printer. There was even a camera that had the ability to take the happiest of group photographs – the camera shutter being triggered by each individual as he or she smiled. All of these separate images were then composed by the camera into a single digital picture.

During his keynote address, Mr. Mitarai pointed out that forecasts expect there will be approximately 440 million broadband subscribers worldwide by 2010, up from a total of 190 million now. This ubiquity will spur the use of advanced video conferencing and video to the home and office, he says. These trends will present a new opportunity, he says, and Canon is focusing on display technology to take advantage of broadband. Innovative technology is more rapidly than ever becoming affordable and finding a path to small business and consumers. Just wait and see what’s going to happen to imaging – we’re in store for some eye-popping stuff.

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