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Patent infringment suit filed on eve of 344MHz Phottix Atlas production (updated)  
Tuesday, January 11, 2011 | by Rob Galbraith
The 344MHz (FCC) version of the Phottix Atlas, a PocketWizard-compatible wireless radio remote device whose design and features closely mirror those of the LPA Design PocketWizard Plus II, and whose range and overall performance is surprisingly good in our testing, is poised to enter production. A patent infringement lawsuit launched late last week in the United States by LPA Design, however, means the 344MHz Atlas' path to U.S. store shelves is not assured (a 433MHz Europe/Asia version has been available for several months). We have a brief look at the Atlas model that's meant primarily for the U.S. and Canada, as well as the details of LPA Design's legal complaint.

The 344MHz Phottix Atlas

The Atlas, from Hong Kong-based photography accessories maker Phottix, is a wireless radio transceiver for triggering flashes and remote cameras. The version aimed at U.S. and Canadian markets operates at 344MHz; the CE version, which is for use in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Asia, operates at 433MHz. Both the 344MHz and 433MHz units share the same core features:
  • Four digitally-encoded operating channels
  • Twin 3.5mm sync jacks for connecting the Atlas to flashes and cameras
  • Locking metal foot with trigger pin (for attaching the Atlas to a camera's hot shoe)
  • Hot shoe for mounting a small flash directly on the Atlas (remote manual or TTL power control not supported)
  • 1/4-20 mounting socket on the back
  • Automatic switching between receiver and transmitter modes (unit can be set to transmitter only mode as well)
  • Remote camera triggering (requires optional camera trigger cable)
  • Wireless Remote Sync, a relay mode that allows an Atlas connected to a camera to first receive a trigger command then rapidly switch to transmit mode to fire flashes in sync with the opening of the camera's shutter
  • Test button
  • Status LED indicates when the unit is on or transmitting/receiving
  • Powered by two AA batteries or via a DC input port
The 433MHz version, which went on sale in the middle of last year, is compatible with PocketWizards that operate on that frequency. Same goes for the upcoming 344MHz model. The Atlas' four channels are the same as Standard Channels 1-4 on all PocketWizard devices, and send the same digital trigger signal, making the systems from the two companies interoperable as long as you're using frequency-matched units from each maker.

We recently had an opportunity to try the not-yet-released 344MHz version. What follows are photos of a pair of beta Phottix Atlas units (shipping 344MHz models are to have black antennas and silkscreened control markings), the results of range testing and some observations. And of course the details of the lawsuit that now clouds the future of this product in the U.S.

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Going Global: Views of the 344MHz Phottix Atlas (beta), including next to a PocketWizard Plus II. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Range testing

One of the strengths of PocketWizard's Plus II and MultiMAX transceivers is long triggering range, and is one of the marketing points of the Phottix Atlas too. We put a pair of 344MHz Atlas and 344MHz Plus II units through the same line-of-sight wireless testing we've been doing for some time, one which gives a pretty solid indication of the maximum unobstructed distance that can be achieved.

On the receive side was a Nikon Speedlight SB-900 mounted on top of a lightstand, with the receiver clamped into position about 6ft/1.8m off the ground. The setup is shown at right (click the photo to see a larger version).

On the transmit side was a Nikon D3S with AF-S 50mm f/1.4G attached and the transmitter in its hot shoe. The camera was held in horizontal position, meaning the transmitter's antenna was oriented vertically. The receiver's antenna was oriented upright too, in all instances but one: when testing the range of the Atlas with the SB-900 in its hot shoe. In that case the antenna was oriented horizontally, parallel with the ground (though still about 6ft/1.8m up).

The aerial photo below depicts the maximum working distances at which the transmitter and receiver combo would register 20 successful firings in a row.


The distances translate as follows:
  • 2 Atlas to Atlas (receiver horizontal): 270ft/82.3m
  • 3 PocketWizard to Atlas: 400ft/121.9m
  • 4 Atlas to PocketWizard: 550ft/167.6m
  • 5 Atlas to Atlas (receiver vertical): 680ft/207.2m
  • 6 PocketWizard to PocketWizard: 850ft/259.1m (this is the practical limit of the test area)
As you can see, the Atlas fares well in this test, really well, particularly when the antennas of both the transmitter and receiver are upright. While a pair of Plus IIs can go further, the Atlas is no slouch in the range department. Some additional range-related information is in the next section.

  • The 344MHz Atlas seems more affected by antenna orientation than the 344Mhz Plus II. The big difference between the horizontal and vertical Atlas range tests hint at this, but we noticed generally, when firing at longer distances, that more dropouts would occur when changing from standing to crouching or turning the camera from horizontal to vertical than would happen with the Plus II under the same conditions.

    In the Atlas to Atlas test, it was possible to rattle off 20 good triggers in a row at distances that were greater than reported above, as long as I held the camera (and therefore the Atlas transmitter) several inches away from my head. Simply bringing the camera back to my eye would drop the number of successful triggers from 20 to zero, and do so consistently beyond about 700ft/213m. The same sort of thing will happen with a Plus II also, but the impact - which should hereafter be referred to as The Forehead Effect - is less dramatic. At the fringes of its range, the number of successful Plus II triggers drops from 20 to 12 or so, rather than right down to zero.

    The explanation for the above could be lurking in the antenna design, but we're not antenna experts so this is only a guess. Whatever the reason, it does mean the Plus II's range advantage over the Atlas varies from moderate to significant, depending on how the transmitter is used. On the other hand, the 344MHz Atlas' range is still really good, particularly when pitted against the plethora of 2.4GHz transmitter systems out there.

    So, how much importance you put on its range-dropping quirks will depend on whether you're considering an Atlas as a long distance triggering tool or not. At moderate distances, our experience suggests that triggering reliability should be solid. For example, the Atlas showed no triggering troubles at all in a strobed basketball setup, at distances of up to 150ft/45.7m and varying antenna angles relative to the receiver.

  • Atlas build quality is excellent. It's on par with the Plus II certainly. The only question mark was the battery door on both beta units, which for some reason was nearly impossible to open unless there were batteries already inside.

  • As a transmitter, the Atlas can keep pace with a firing rate of about 7fps, whereas the Plus II is spec'd for continuous shooting at 12fps (and can keep up to the 11fps maximum frame rate of the D3S in our testing).

  • The maximum shutter speed at which the Atlas can deliver a clean sync - that is, no black band is intruding into the frame - will be 1/3 step lower than with the Plus II in some instances. The maximum sync speed of the two is very close, but the black band, when it appears, does push a bit further into the frame at a given shutter speed with the Atlas than it does with the Plus II.
Our overall impression of the 344MHz Phottix Atlas is that it's a good product, one that is better put together, more reliable in operation and more like an actual PocketWizard than we were expecting. Performance isn't quite up to the Plus II in several areas, but it's not that far off either.

In the draft of this article, here's where we talked about the anticipated U.S. price for the Atlas and other considerations that would go into the purchase of either the Atlas or the Plus II. LPA Design's lawsuit, however, makes the discussion pointless for the moment, so we'll proceed to give a bit of detail about that.

The lawsuit

The naked truth is the Atlas is as close a cousin as it could be to the Plus II. The PocketWizard offers longer range and seems to be less affected by antenna orientation, plus it can fire at the maximum frame rate of any digital SLR shipping today, while the Phottix product has a metal foot and a built-in hot shoe for convenient mounting of a small flash. So, there are differences. These differences don't mask the fact the overall design, list of features and interoperability makes the Atlas a near-twin of the Plus II.

We're not the only ones who noticed. LPA Design did too, and has filed a lawsuit in the U.S., claiming that Phottix and parent company Eternal Fortune, both Hong Kong firms, are infringing on two LPA patents. They are:
The former involves the integration of a microprocessor into a system for sending digitally-encoded signals in photographic applications while the latter refers to automatic switching from receive mode to transmit mode when a camera sync pulse is detected. The lawsuit was filed on January 7, 2011 in Vermont, the U.S. state where LPA Design is headquartered. (Documents related to the lawsuit can be viewed, for a fee, here.)

We're not in a position to dissect what this legal action means to the future of the 344MHz Atlas or what the next steps will be for either party. Nor do we know what impact this legal action will have on companies such as Interfit that intend to release the 344MHz Atlas rebadged as the Titan Pro. The only thing we know for sure is the suit applies only to the U.S., not to other likely markets for the 344MHz Phottix Atlas such as Canada and not to countries carrying the 433MHz version already.

Update, January 11, 2011, 1:00PM MT: A separate story covers new developments related to the lawsuit.

More information is in the LPA Design press release below.

Press Release

So. Burlington, VT – January 11, 2011 - On Friday, January 7, 2010, LPA Design of So. Burlington filed a complaint for patent infringement in the United States District Court for the District of Vermont against Phottix (HK) Ltd. and Eternal Fortune (HK) Ltd, alleging that the Phottix Atlas wireless flash trigger produced in China infringes upon two patents held by LPA. The Vermont-based company, incorporated as LAB Partner Associates, Inc., is the maker of the industry-leading PocketWizard® line of high precision wireless control devices for the professional photography market, including the popular PocketWizard Plus II™.

The PocketWizard technology allows professional photographers to control complex lighting systems remotely from the body of a camera. It is particularly useful in studio, sports and event photography, and has become the industry standard as a result of sustained research and development conducted in Vermont. 

“LPA was an early and ground-breaking contributor to the technology and market for professional quality wireless flash triggers,” said Tim Neiley, CEO and President of LPA.  “LPA has worked hard to bring its patented technologies to market though constant innovation and improvement always with a view to the needs of the professional photographer.  This lawsuit is necessary to protect our investment in innovation.”

LPA holds patents in the United States and throughout the world directed to its proprietary wireless triggering technology.  The patents in the lawsuit cover fundamental technology in radio communications between wireless trigger devices and the innovative auto-switching transceiver introduced for the first time in the PocketWizard Plus II™ wireless trigger.

The patents LPA is asserting include:

United States Patent No. 5,359,375 issued for an invention entitled “Microprocessor Programmable Digital Remote Radio Photographic Control.”

United States Patent No. 7,437,063 issued for an invention entitled “wireless Camera Flash Synchronizer System and Method.”

Founded in 1990 as an electronics R&D consulting company, LPA Design has expertise in printed circuit board design, RF communications and antenna optimization, and remote sensors.  Among other innovations, LPA developed the industry leading PocketWizard® line of high precision wireless control devices for the professional photography market.  PocketWizard® products provide ultra-high precision, wireless synchronization of cameras, flash lighting, and light meters, allowing professional photographers to create unparalleled photographs and achieve unmatched reliability in capturing high value images.

LPA is represented by Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC in Burlington, Vermont.

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