Desperately Seeking Saburi: Finding the Camera Phone Creator

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Desperately Seeking Saburi: Finding the Camera Phone Creator

Back in July of this year, analyst Jon Peddie was on a mission to find the inventor of the camera phone – an product category that is responsible for a significant portion of the current mobile phone boom. Peddie found the first camera phone, but couldn’t identify the precise inventor, and wasn’t sure if there even was a single person who could be found. TG Daily picked up where Peddie left off – and got lucky in Japan.

I remember interviewing Sun executives in July of 2000 about the sense and nonsense of squeezing a video camera into a cell phone and using Java to support it. Back then, the notion of having a camera phone had first come to North America. Today they are everywhere, and indeed, it is hard to find a cell phone without a camera. And the cell phone industry has built an entire generation of products around this invention, with no sign of running out of innovations yet. Cameras have been key elements in motivating consumers to upgrade their older phones, with today’s phones being replaced at almost twice the rate of five years ago.

The inventors of the first cell phone have been well documented, with Dr. Martin Cooper being recognized by most North American media outlets, and UK-based John Edwards being the favorite in Europe (Edwards claims to have beaten Cooper by a few months). But despite this debate, there is almost no information about who invented the camera phone. Even using Peddie’s research, it is tough to say who actually was first to have the idea and who built the first device.

Kazumi Saburi

Part of the problem is that several people and companies were working on a camera phone in the same time frame and its virtually impossible to single out the single inventor and champion of the mobile phone industry.

But that didn’t stop me. I started my search at the point where Peddie left off with the company that developed the first camera phone.

Internet sources, including Wikipedia, typically suggest that it was Sharp’s J-SH04 that won the race for the first camera phone. Even if Sharp claims on its website that this was the first mobile phone with an “attached camera,” it debuted months after the real first camera phone. The Sharp device was released in November 2000, but, according to Peddie’s article published in the July 18 issue of his firm’s “Tech Watch”, the Samsung Anycall SCH-V200 had been available already in April of 2000.

Peddie, who enlisted the help of more than 2000 people on his search, also mentioned a patent about a “radio telephone in a handheld housing with electro-acoustic transducers behind sound inlets and a video recorder, a video player, and an electronic circuit (…) a wide-angle objective mounted in the front of the housing with the video player” – which was filed by Alcatel already back in 1992. But there is no evidence that this device ever made it into a commercial product.

But the Samsung wasn’t the first, by a long shot. In the end, it turned out that the first camera phone was the Kyocera Visual Phone VP-210, which was released in May of 1999 in Japan. Besides the fact that it was known to be the first video-capable cell phone, it also was the first functional camera phone for digital still photos. The device weighed in at a hefty 6 ounces, integrated a 2.0″ TFT display capable of displaying 65K colors, could transmit video at two frames per second and had enough memory to store 20 still images. Back then, the VP-210 sold for 40,000 Yen or about $335.

Equipped with this information, I poked into Kyocera’s massive Japan operation, in the hope to find the man, woman or group behind the idea of the VP-210. It took several weeks until I was able to find the right contact. But eventually, Masumi Sakurai from Kyocera’s PR department at the firm’s Kyoto headquarters assisted us and I spoke to Kazumi Saburi.

Saburi led the VP-210 project back in 1997 as section manager of Kyocera’s Yokohama research and development center and brought the device from idea to life. Today, Saburi is the manager of the Fifth Engineering Development Department for Mobile Communication Equipment in Kyocera’s Corporate Mobile Communication Equipment Group.

Where did Saburi get the idea to build a camera into a cell phone?

“Around that time, cellular handsets with enabled voice and SMS communication capabilities were considered to be just one among many personal communication tools. One day a simple idea hit us – ‘What if we were able to enjoy talking with the intended person watching his/her face on the display?’ We were certain that such a device would make cell phone communications much more convenient and enjoyable.”

So his initial thoughts were centered around a video rather than still cameras, something that is only recently become more popular in phones. “We knew that a handset must be equipped with a camera and a full-color display for visual communications of any kind – the former is required for catching the image of the speaker and the latter for showing it on the receiver’s terminal. This pretty much outlines our first idea,” he said.

A cultural change driven by camera phones

Saburi’s idea was to have users exchange pictures by email, using the SMS services of the phone network. He began working on the project back in 1997, and “the Kyocera visual phone came to the market in 1999, but we had nourished [the idea] for several years before we started development.”

Looking back in the historical records 40 years ago, UK banks told John Edwards that no one ever would be interested in carrying a phone around all the time and ultimately denied him a loan to develop and market his cellphone idea. But Saburi didn’t have any such difficulty. “Top management aggressively encouraged us to develop the product. We also believed that such a product would improve Kyocera’s brand image.”

Saburi’s research on how consumers used cameras was a big reason for inventing the camera phone: “The cell phone’s strongest feature is its portability. This alone creates the application opportunity for the camera phone: We imagined that users are likely to accept the minor weight addition of a camera in a cell phone and carry around ‘weightless’ photo albums to enjoy with friends. But they do not use heavy cameras or bring along traditional physical photo albums all the time. A cell phone with a camera and color display provided a completely new value for users: It could be used as a phone, a camera and a photo album. This is also where we started from a marketing point of view. From a technical view, we were also confident that we could develop such a device. The approach was to combine an existing teleconference system and a primary wireless data transmission technology.”

The phone was a quick success in Japan and was the beginning of a cultural change in how phones were used. “After the release of Kyocera’s visual phone for DDI pocket, now Willcom, and J-phone, now Vodafone K.K., introduced the service “SHA-mail” [“photo mail”], which greatly contributed to boost the sales of camera-installed cellular handsets in Japan. SHA-mail greatly changed Japanese telecommunication culture. A key factor to support the boom of camera-installed handsets was in my opinion the evolution of the camera module. We saw remarkable downsizing of the modules, the quality and function were amazingly improved – to a level that was almost equal to digital cameras.”

As you can imagine, squeezing a camera into a phone wasn’t easy. Saburi remembers plenty of challenges. “I remember that I had discussions with R&D staff, project members and top management several road blocks we came across – again and again. What is the best angle for camera mounting? How can we improve the data transmission speed for minimizing the time lag while talking? What is the best balance of the image quality and frame rate? What about the battery? We faced a pile of challenges that we had never had before.” About a dozen engineers worked on the key technologies, taking about two years to build the first model.

Today, Saburi is in charge of Kyocera’s cell handset R&D, and he is working on phones with auto focus and 3 megapixel resolution. “In Japan, we are currently enjoying taking pictures and playing music on our cell phones. We can even make payments with our handsets, just like you use a credit card. We call this the ‘osaifu-keitai’ function. My guess is that the next big thing would happen after a seamless ubiquitous network environment is established.”

I asked Saburi if there is anything he could change about mobile phones and the way we use mobile phones, what would it be? “We should not forget the key function of phones. Cellular telephones enable us to communicate with anyone, at anytime, from anywhere. This is the strongest feature of cell phones. We should focus much more on this feature of communication, which would allow us to extend battery life. How much fun would it be, if we could enjoy endless multi-communication, without having to worry about the battery? Of course, this is my personal opinion. I myself prefer the simple cell phone models that focus on just the communication feature.”

And there you have it, the ultimate irony: the inventor of the camera phone, for all his influence over how technology is used, is the ultimate cell Luddite! I hope you enjoyed our journey to the heart of this innovative technology as much as I did.