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Wi-Pics wireless photo transmitter takes shape  
Thursday, February 12, 2004 | by Rob Galbraith

Wi-Pics has progressed a lot since the ugly-duckling prototype days of PMA 2003. Over the past 12 months, Dave Rea, Wi-Pics' inventor, has completed the design of the upcoming device for transmitting photos wirelessly from most digital cameras with a CompactFlash slot.

Dice America, the maker of Wi-Pics and Rea's employer since he graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology last year, is gearing up for the seeding of oversized beta Wi-Pics units in March 2004, with the final, slimmed-down version (as pictured below) slated for release in May-June 2004.

Wi-Pics case mockup and early CompactFlash slot connector and cable

As the ship date approaches, most of the key details of Wi-Pics are now set. It will be Wi-Fi all the way, supporting the 802.11a/b/g transmission protocols, and autoswitching between them depending on the wireless network. It uses a wireless chipset from Atheros, which means when linking to access points that use the same chipset, an additional, faster-than-802.11g mode will be enabled for even more rapid throughput. A removable swivel antenna will be included, while an additional antenna can be connected to a second antenna port on the opposite side of the device.

Once a wireless link is established, Wi-Pics will be able to move pictures using FTP, SCP (Secure Copy) or SMB (Windows sharing, in effect), and perhaps other protocols too, and will include the ability to enter a host (domain name or numeric address), user name, password and other connection parameters through its front two-line LCD panel and four-button controller.

Dice America has dispensed with their original plan to connect to a supported camera via its USB or FireWire port. Instead, pictures will be transfered via the CompactFlash card slot, using a specially-constructed dummy CF card that is cabled to the Wi-Pics device. This approach broadens the cameras that Wi-Pics will support, since it should function with most, if not all, cameras that write their pictures to CompactFlash. It also eliminates the need to design Wi-Pics to speak the specific USB or FireWire communication and transfer commands that each model or family of cameras requires.

On the other hand, it means that Dice America has to sort out how Wi-Pics purchasers will deal with the card door, since having a cable running from the card slot is not how digital camera manufacturers envisioned their cameras would be used. Canon digital SLR models, for example, automatically power down when the card door is open; most cameras, including digital SLR's from Nikon, become unwieldy to hold unless the door is shut tight.

Dice America is exploring a number of solutions, including modifying the camera's card door (or a replacement door) so that the cable can pass through a milled hole, allowing the door to close. Nikon photographers who spend most of their shooting day in the warm and dry indoors will have the option of simply removing the card door altogether. For everyone else, we hope that an elegant and weather-resistant solution is devised.

Pictures flow into Wi-Pics over a cable from the CF slot, and out again over a Wi-Fi link (or a wired link too; a 10/100 Ethernet port is built into the device). There is some flexibility over what happens to the pictures in-between. The base model will include 32MB of memory to store pictures after they're received from the camera but before they've been whisked wirelessly to their destination, making Wi-Pics a short-term holding facility for photos before they're transmitted, verified and the original in Wi-Pics deleted.

All models, including the base model, include two CompactFlash card slots tucked inside the fold-down front panel which can be used to store photos arriving from the camera. Wi-Pics' storage capacity is then limited only by the capacity of the CF cards used. Other configurations of Wi-Pics will include a CompactFlash card installed on the inside of the unit itself, inside either the standard plastic case or a ruggedized cast-magnesium version. It's expected that even an 8GB CF card of the type announced this week at PMA 2004 will work internally. Also available will be a 1.8 inch hard drive option, similar to that found in Apple's iPod, with a capacity of up to 40GB and installed in Wi-Pics on shock-reduction mounts.

The configuration you choose will dictate the range of store-and-transmit options. For example, with only the 32MB of memory, pictures must be transmitted as soon as they arrive in most cases. With CF or hard drive storage, Wi-Pics can optionally be used to store photos while out of range of an access point, transmitting them later when back in range. It will also be possible to transfer photos from the internal storage to CF cards in the card slots, if desired, as well as transfer photos from CF cards in the card slots to the internal storage (this transfer will be at relatively pokey PCMCIA speeds of probably less than 2MB/second max).

Because the camera views the Wi-Pics device as nothing more than a regular CompactFlash card, only cameras that support the FAT32 file system will be able to see an internal 40GB drive, for example, as a single volume. Wi-Pics will include a workaround for FAT16-only camera models, which are otherwise limited to about 2GB, that enable the camera to see Wi-Pics storage as a series of smaller virtual volumes. Wi-Pics will include a configuration option on its LCD screen to switch between one FAT32 or multiple FAT16 volumes. We haven't seen how this works, so it's hard to say if this will be cumbersome for users of older cameras that aren't FAT32-savvy.

The top-end model will include a bar code scanner built into the device. This enables the associating of photos to bar code data, where the data can be written into a photo's EXIF metadata, into a text file or both. This establishes a simple link between pictures and subject: a photographer at a theme park could shoot a series of pictures of a family entering the park, scan a bar code card and give the family the card. Then, the photographer would direct them to a kiosk where they can access their specific pictures (which have already been transmitted via Wi-Pics to a central server) by scanning the bar code.

Another photographer, elsewhere in the park, could shoot more pictures of them, scan the same bar code card, thereby allowing the family to view, and presumably order prints from, all the pictures taken of them that day. (FYI, Wi-Pics will give the option of associating bar code data with photos taken either before or after the bar code scan).

This is just one example of the powerful workflow potential of the bar code scanner and wireless transmitting capabilities of Wi-Pics for several of the key market segments Dice America is targeting with the device: event, school and theme park/cruise ship photographers, as well as photo studios. Also included will be some control over the renaming of files at their destination by Wi-Pics.

Still being evaluated is what, if any, receiving software will be included with Wi-Pics for installation on the destination computer, including perhaps an application that will watch the folder in which pictures are arriving and take some action in response: sending the pictures to a proof printer, for example. Also being evaluated are extra-cost software options, though these are in the early planning stages.

The base model of Wi-Pics, with 32MB of memory and no other internal storage, is planned to have a suggested list price of US$1600. The price climbs to a suggested list price of US$2400 for a unit with a bar code scanner and internal 40GB hard drive. Other configurations, including one without a bar code scanner but ports for external scanners, as well as those with internal CompactFlash storage, will also be available, but pricing has not been set. Wi-Pics is powered only by an external power source, it has no internal battery, which means the cost of an add-on battery needs to be factored into the device's total cost.

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