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[Scroll down for And a few more things… industry news highlights. This article will also appear in the CES issue of Digital Imaging Reporter, January 7, 2020]

As an analyst who tracks and advises on innovation strategies for consumer imaging companies, the most difficult – and the most impactful – question is whether particular imaging innovation trends are slated to “change the game” or “only” trigger incremental changes. This question comes up regularly for each stage of the typical consumer imaging journey: photo (or video) capture, enhancement, organizing, sharing, viewing and printing.

Take, for example, a camera that can fly and be remotely controlled – was that a game-changing or incremental innovation? Or a camera that weighs less and is less noisy than the models we’ve been using for many years? A photosharing app that lets you share images that automatically vanish after the recipient has viewed them? A new breed of apps that let you auto-curate and auto-design your photobooks through the click of a few buttons?

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Before we reflect on these and several other examples, let’s try to define what constitutes game-changing vs. incremental innovation. I’d like to do this based on the lessons learned from game-changing innovation outside the world of imaging.

Let’s review the idea of needing to summon a driver to take you for a short ride. You could flag one down or call a taxi company, after which a driver shows up who you’ll pay when you’ve arrived at your destination. It’s a proven system that worked and still works. While there were no glaring unfilled needs, innovative companies like Uber and Lyft could still disrupt this true-and-proven market by enabling customers to use their smartphone to find nearby drivers, accept a ride in these drivers’ private cars, rate the drivers, and pay them through their phone.  We all know what a game-changing impact these ridesharing services have had – and will have even more when we can summon autonomous vehicles for our rides.

Did this fundamental disruption of the taxi industry require earth-shattering technology? Not really. To start, Uber, for instance, mostly used existing technologies besides their own initial demand prediction model, such as mapping software, payment solutions and various smartphone communication APIs. What made it game-changing was the removal of a seemingly moderate level of friction, coupled with aggressive business practices (rock bottom prices to start when these services elbowed their way into often unchartered legal territory) – rather than technology innovation. In fact, technology innovation only later became a differentiator in an effort to raise barriers to entry, e.g. when developing autonomous driving solutions.

There are many other examples of relatively low-tech innovation succeeding in addressing (latent) consumer needs before the companies involved developed innovative technology to create competitive barriers.

For instance, Netflix launched with the simple proposition to make it more convenient to rent movie DVDs. For a long time, its service was a relatively low-tech affair: customers could order DVDs on Netflix’s website to be sent to their home and returned in a pre-paid envelope. Coupled with a transparent “all you can eat but only 1 at a time” monthly subscription without the customary due dates and late fees, Netflix took off quickly. Only later, the company accomplished what was technically much harder: streaming videos at a high enough resolution, thus eliminating the need to mail DVDs. A game changer? Ask the former folks from Blockbuster Video or any of your friends who like to binge-watch movies on a rainy weekend. But movie streaming by now has also turned into a commodity, so Netflix has moved on by focusing on its next gamechanger to expand and defend its turf: investing billions of dollars in exclusive original content.

And the list goes on – feel free to fill in the gaps for Airbnb, Amazon, Venmo, Facebook, Etsy, Pinterest, etc.

The takeaways?

  • Innovation becomes game-changing if it leads to massive behavioral shifts: major shifts in behavior coupled with broad adoption.
  • Massive behavioral shifts typically also disrupt the incumbents when innovative newcomers enter the market.
  • Game-changing innovation doesn’t necessarily require developing earth-shattering technology.
  • However, more advanced technology innovation is often needed at a later stage, as the successful game-changing innovators will attract copycats that need to be fended off, and entering secondary growth markets might require additional products or features.
  • Game-changing innovation does not necessarily equal technology innovation: it could also come from business innovation.
  • Game-changing innovation is hard to predict – even by the prospective beneficiaries of the innovation. Who would have thought that they’d prefer accepting rides from perfect strangers in their private cars over true-and-proven brand-name taxi cabs? Or buy products based on photos and descriptions on a website rather than seeing them in person in a store?

In the remainder of this article I’d like to review whether 9 examples of consumer imaging innovation are primarily game-changing or incremental. (And yes, these are brushstroke and subjective assessments. Have different thoughts? Comment on this article!). We’ll pick these examples from among each of the stages of a typical consumer imaging journey:

Capture – Drone cameras: while drones are game-changing in specific vertical B2B markets such as agriculture, they haven’t triggered broad adoption among consumers. They’re yet another camera type in the consumer’s potential arsenal of long tail cameras that address specific use cases. In other words, no matter how game-changing the technology sounds (a camera that flies!), drones haven’t become a game-changing innovation for the consumer imaging market.

Capture – Mirrorless cameras: mirrorless cameras also signify incremental rather than game-changing innovation, as they haven’t as of yet led to major behavioral shifts or broad adoption beyond the segment of former DSLR buyers. With more or less all incumbent camera vendors now offering mirrorless cameras, the vendor lineup isn’t fundamentally different from the one for DSLRs in the past. (If mirrorless camera users were to use their cameras primarily for taking videos, for which these cameras are well-suited, it would be a different equation).

Enhance – Combine apps. Combine apps (such as collage, montage, video clip apps, or social media apps that enable smartphone users to combine photos with other photos, or text, music, graphics, or video clips) are the fastest growing segment within the photo/video app category. Not only do we see broad adoption, innovative Combine apps also enable a major shift in how consumers enhance their photos before sharing them: through multi-format creative expressions rather than as photos by themselves.

Organize – AI-based photo organizing. The ability to have one’s photo collections auto-organized is fundamentally changing consumer behavior: consumers can now easily find (or even be reminded of) the photos that matter to them, thus making sharing, viewing or printing much more feasible – and making it more enticing to take an unlimited number of photos. In other words, we’re moving into an era in which consumers can have their beloved photos at their fingertips.

Share – (semi) Ephemeral photos: While traditionally the photo industry has always promoted the idea that photos are consumers’ prime choice for preserving their memories, Snapchat’s ephemeral photos innovation in 2002 reversed the logic: the images worth sharing are the ones that are short-lived, as users can freely share them in-the-moment without needing to be concerned that these photos will be reshared with others or ever haunt them in the future. Too drastic? It took Snapchat a while to develop a solution with an even broader market appeal: the Story format, which lets users document and share their daily lives in a visual format that typically disappears after 24 hours. Other social media and chat services have all implemented their own Story format and seen mass adoption.

View – VR headsets: VR headsets have been prematurely proclaimed as game-changing. While this might have been true for specific markets (such as training applications or games), VR headsets have failed to trigger mass adoption, even with vendors such as Google offering (almost) free cardboard VR headsets to give consumers a taste of immersive VR content (Google recently discontinued its Daydream VR platform).

View – Mobile AR: While the above can also be said of AR headsets, AR is taking off in the form of mobile AR: the ability to see through one’s phone scenes or objects in real-life, supplemented with virtual informative or entertaining content. A fast-growing array of AR applications ranging from games to creative expression to shopping is triggering major behavioral shifts.

Print – AI-based photobook auto-creation: the days are gone when photobook providers proudly proclaimed how much time their customers on average spent creating their photobooks. A slew of B2C and B2B solutions now use AI to enable consumers to curate and design their photobooks within seconds and through the click of a few buttons – even on small-screen devices such as smartphones. Is this innovation incremental or game-changing? This one is a tough call, but I lean towards it being incremental, at least for now. Yes, there is a shift towards using these one-click solutions vs. their more complicated predecessors, but one could argue it is an incremental change and we don’t yet see a massive increase in the number of photobooks being created. Yes, some new suppliers have come to market, but B2B startups also license their innovative technology to incumbents, i.e. the supplier lineup hasn’t fundamentally been disrupted.

Print – Instant printing: Instant print cameras or printers have more elements of being game-changing. It’s not so much the invention of new technology that created mass adoption of instant print products, as Polaroid(-like) printing has been around for a long time. Rather, the innovation has come from smart targeted marketing that leverages today’s youngsters’ infatuation with photography, coupled with the popularity of anything retro. Instant print products could really become game-changing if vendors were able to entice these young photo print enthusiasts to continue to be purchasers of age-appropriate photo print products as they become high school students, go to college or have children themselves. Vendors who develop the magic formula to transition young instant print purchasers into lifelong print product purchasers will be the real instant photo print innovators!

In sum. It’s easy to mislabel technically innovative new products as game-changers. Some are; some are not. Likewise, some relatively low-tech innovators are game-changers; others are not.

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And a few more things…

VSCO & Snapchat. What happens when you mix VSCO film-inspired presets with Snapchat’s augmented reality lenses? AR film effects like light leaks and flares. VSCO announces its first Snapchat lens, created in a partnership with Snap. 

TikTok. TikTok hits 1.5 billion downloads, with 614M downloads so far just this year. It’s not China that leads the pack but rather India with over 466M downloads of TikTok on the App Store and Google Play, according to Sensor Tower.

iGreet. AR greeting card pioneer iGreet launches fold-out greeting cards with embedded AR video links on Kickstarter.

Ricoh. After Ricoh went higher end with its $999 Theta Z1, it’s now going for the casual shooters with its $299 Theta SC2, a 14MP 360-degree camera with 4K/30p video. The SC2 features a lens-by-lens exposure mode that controls the cameras independently for situations where one side of 360-degree exposure might be brighter than the other.

Olympus. For sale, or not, or yes. After officially denying rumors of an imminent imaging business shut down, Olympus’ CEO backtracked on some previous comments, implying that the company’s camera business may indeed be up for sale.

FiLMiC. It’s not every week that we see the release of a new camera app. The developers of the FiLMiC Pro-Video Camera app now launched Firstlight, an iOS app offering high-end camera features through a clean and intuitive interface.

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Hans Hartman

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