Understand the Evolution of the Camera Phone

Ahmed Nassar
Digital Shroud
Published in
7 min readMay 11, 2020

The overlooked societal and technological influence of the camera phone.

Who would have known that the invention of the camera would turn into one of the most profound ubiquitous systems? Other than smartphones, have we, as humans, ever understood the magnitude of impact that the camera has had on technology, and society? And, have we ever noticed the ease of dissolving this great technology, within other technologies? By this, I simply mean: have people forgotten about the substantial technological and societal influence of the camera?

One of the symptoms of ubiquitous computing systems is that they go unnoticed and are often overlooked. They are meant to “weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it”, coined from the father of the ubiquitous computing era, Mark Weiser. However, this tends to extract the immense influence the technology has provided.

Hear me out. I’m not asking for any appreciation. But instead, the acknowledgement, of this technology that has been one of the leading forces to our technological advancements.

There are many variations of the camera, but the invention of the camera phone is what really changed the game. It’s what really lead to the vast spread and ubiquity of cameras within other technologies.

The first camera phone

The camera phone was first explored in Japan during 1997, run by Sharp and Kyocera. Both companies had cell phones with integrated cameras. However, these phones weren’t engineered to fully embrace the camera — until a few months later, when Philippe Kahn from Sharp tinkered with some technologies that eventually lead to him releasing the first ever digital photo of his new born daughter, sharing pictures with 2000 people worldwide. However, this wasn’t a fully constructed camera phone just yet.

Supposedly, while Kahn’s wife was in labor, he was trying to connect his flip-top Casio phone (I have never heard of that) to his personal camera, and then to his laptop with lines of code programmed to take photos.

The official first camera phone was the invented in 1997 by Sharp but wasn’t released until November 2000. Since Kahn worked for Sharp, they used his innovative strategies and ideas to finally engineer a mobile device that embraced the luxury of easily taking photos and videos. But what motivated technologists like Kahn to integrate these two devices into one?

Why?

In the 1980s-1990s, we were in a very progressive era of technology. Engineers and technicians all around the world were experimenting and tinkering with already developed products to see if they were able to invent another influential piece of technology. This era was a time period of curiosity and pioneering, and what was also known as the ubiquitous computing era.

The camera itself was already a fully functional technology, with videography also being prevalent. But, there was always that aspiration which provoked innovators, especially during this era, to see if something can be elevated to another level.

Philippe Kahn

Philippe Kahn was previously working for about a year on a web server-based infrastructure for pictures known as Picture Mail, but once his wife went into labor, he jury-rigged his phone, camera, and laptop shown above to capture photos of his newborn. He was passionate about blending technologies into everyday life — one of the key components of ubiquitous technologies.

Was there a problem at hand?

I personally don’t believe the camera phone wasn’t invented to solve a core problem, but instead to expand on the inventions of futuristic technologies. Although lots of technologies are created to solve a general problem, not all of them are.

For example, what inherent problem does the digital camera solve? Is there really a “problem” at hand, or is it for exhibiting an aspect of life in a different perspective? We can discuss what defines a problem in relative contexts, but the reasonings behind why it was invented was to expand on ubiquitous technologies and to allow humans to use technology in another perspective. However, this doesn’t take away from the influence it’s had on technology and society.

The Physical Design Influence

In the early 2000s with the rise of the camera phone, the identity of the phone itself was no longer solely for phone calls, text messaging, and accessing the web, but also capturing photos and videos. This soon became a compulsory characteristic for what was known as the mobile phone; if a phone didn’t have a camera, it was almost considered strange.

Looking back at the start of the camera phone, it’s pretty absurd to think about what humans have been able to transform it into in just about 10–15 years. More companies like Nokia, Samsung, and Apple, started to develop their own smartphone, obviously including the camera. They all had their own methodologies to enhance the camera system; approaches like motion images/videos, higher resolution, experiments with types of glass and lenses, megapixel sensors, the list continues. Engineers started to focus more on the physical structure and design of the camera, going from a relatively larger object, to a small lens within a small object.

The camera feature led to a rapid development, one that would be the deciding factor of choosing which phone users wanted to purchase. Nowadays, companies like Samsung and Apple go neck-and-neck competing for not only which phone provides the better overall mobile user experience, but also, plenty of people decide relying on the camera quality on the phone. Now, we have Apple iPhones featuring triple camera lenses on the back of their phone that are arguably equivalent to professional quality resolution. I wonder if Philippe Kahn would have predicted this would happen so relatively soon.

Social Human-Camera Phone Interaction

Aside from the fascinating physical enhancements of the camera, another dimension or perspective was created. This is among the social human interaction with the camera.

The overall camera experience made promising impact on the social human interaction. It led to owners of these devices to carry basically a portable mirror everywhere they go. It led people to become amazing photographers. It led to another innovative change in technology, and provided companies to take this physical design to extreme measures. Applications were developed revolving around the camera such as Snapchat, Instagram, Skype, and now Zoom. This invention provided social engagement and entertainment, and even professions. It led to being a reliance for education systems worldwide. What if we still only had the stand-alone digital cameras? How would that effect our current educational experience with COVID-19?

Did it succeed?

Back in the 80s, the concept of humans around the world owning a device with a feature that is able to capture digital photos and videos was pretty far-fetched. Kahn’s invention forever altered the human interaction with a mobile device, and generally how humans interact with technologies. By 2003, more camera phones were sold than the stand-alone digital cameras. This is because although stand-alone cameras produced higher quality images, not all humans needed or were interested in that. They simply just wanted to have something easy to have that can capture an image — and what better than to combine the use of a phone with a camera into one affordable device? The historical influential success of the camera phone is mind-blowing.

Conclusion

I could go all day arguing why the camera, and the camera phone, has made a tremendous influential imprint on technology, society, and humanity. The reliance and even personal pleasure of the camera has been appreciated worldwide. It will forever be a necessity. It will always be one of the greatest inventions and influencers in technology of all time. And, it will always be known for its ubiquity. I’ve only touched based on the phone and personal computing devices. What about security cameras? Or body cameras on police officers? There are plenty of reasons on how the usage of the camera that has shaped society. So, maybe I am asking for some appreciation.

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Ahmed Nassar
Digital Shroud

Student at Drexel University studying Information Systems + Interactive Digital Design. Interested in understanding human-computer interaction principles.