Innovative new camera system for tracking fast-moving objects

I just read about an amazing new camera system that certainly falls squarely in the domain of ‘science photography’.

The system, called the Dynamic Target Tracking Camera System, is currently under development at the University of Tokyo’s Ishikawa Uko Laboratory. What makes it newsworthy is its amazing ability to track fast-moving objects, as shown in this impressive demonstration video:

From a design point of view, this is one of those wonderful examples where innovation is achieved by taking a novel approach the problem at hand. Instead of trying to develop a system that can move a (rather heavy) camera quickly enough to track an object, the system contains two mirrors, one panning and one tilting, which can, through their combined movement, track objects moving at very high speeds. The camera system used with the mirrors can film objects at a rate of one image per 1/1000th of a second, allowing for great slow-motion playback.

Beyond its ability to track ping-pong balls in a lab environment, the Dynamic Target Tracking Camera System has massive potential in the real world, particularly in fast action sports such as tennis, cricket and baseball. In addition to being a great tool for umpiring, it could potentially enable some very interesting and unique slow motion playbacks.

As a second, equally impressive, application, the system can also be used to project images onto an object, as shown to very amusing effect in the above video. I am sure this also has huge real-world potential, particularly in the marketing and promotions space – imagine a sports brand projecting it’s logo onto the ball in a basketball game, for example.

No doubt a system like this can also potentially enable be a whole new dimension in computer gaming – just imagine all the potential applications!

I just love the concept – definitely an innovation worth keeping an eye on!

Celebrating two innovative photographic artists

Today, 11 June, is quite a big day in photographic history – it is on this day that we celebrate the births of two great photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron (11 June 1815 to 26 January 1879) from Great Britain, and the American Jerry Uelsmann (born 11 June 1934).

Cameron and Uelsmann operate in very different photographic domains – while Julia Cameron was a groundbreaking portrait photographer, Uelsmann is known for his fantastical darkroom creations, and is considered the forerunner of the photomontage technique.

Portrait of the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor Sir John Herschel, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. This portrait illustrates Cameron's trademark tightly cropped, soft focus style, and her uncanny ability to bring out the character of her subjects.  [Public domain - copyright expired]
Portrait of the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor Sir John Herschel, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. This portrait illustrates Cameron’s trademark tightly cropped, soft focus style, and her uncanny ability to bring out the character of her subjects.
[Public domain – copyright expired]

Julia Margaret Cameron was a key figure in the development of the modern portrait style. Her influence in this field is particularly significant if one takes into account that her photographic career only spanned eleven years – she only took up photography at the late age of 48 when she received a camera as a present from her daughter. She took to the discipline with great vigour and had an obvious knack for photography, quickly becoming a prominent member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland. In her short career she photographed many famous celebrities and historical figures, and she is also known for allegorical works featuring religious and literary themes.

One of the innovations Cameron brought to portrait photography was cropping her portraits much more tightly than was the norm at the time. Another interesting technique she used, was to photograph her subjects intentionally slightly out of focus, and using long exposures, thus creating images that also contained motion blur. While this led some of her contemporaries to ridicule her work, she remained extremely prolific, leaving behind a very comprehensive portrait library for her time.

Besides her technical and artistic innovations, Cameron also brought her innovative nature to bear on the business side of photography – she registered each of her photos with the copyright office, and kept detailed records of all her work. This careful bookkeeping has resulted in a large number of her works surviving today.

While Cameron is an influential figure in portrait photography, her influence only came to bear long after her death – as mentioned before, many of her contemporaries found her soft-focus, closely cropped portraits ridiculous and unacceptable. Things have changed, though, with many claiming her to be one of the portraiture greats – Imogen Cunningham said “I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better”, while Getty Images have stated “Cameron’s photographic portraits are considered among the finest in the early history of photography”.

Untitled (Tree House), by Jerry Uelsmann, 1982. It is quite unbelievable to think that Uelsmann's photo montages were done using film negatives in the darkroom, without any modern digital processing.
Untitled (Tree House), by Jerry Uelsmann, 1982. It is quite unbelievable to think that Uelsmann’s photo montages were done using film negatives in the darkroom, without any modern digital processing.

Unlike Julia Cameron, Jerry Uelsmann’s interest in photography started at the much younger age of 14. While still at school he started landing a few minor photography jobs, and after completing his tertiary studies in photography, he took up a job teaching photography at the University of Florida in 1960.

From early in his career Uelsmann developed an interest in darkroom image manipulation, creating composite images from multiple negatives. Some of his creations, done using his large archive of negatives, were amazingly intricate, often requiring him to work with multiple enlargers during the same session. Referring to his works as “allegorical surrealist imagery of the unfathomable”, he never cared about the boundaries suggested by the photographic realists of hie time. Instead, he opted to use components of a number of different photographs to create and share the images he saw in his mind, thus developing the photo montage technique to an amazingly advanced technical level.

What made the impact of his work even greater was that he created his photo-fantasies at a time when such montages weren’t at all a common concept – photos were essentially considered realistic documentary interpretations of scenes and events. As such, Uelsmann’s avant grade photographic visuals helped to greatly expand the boundaries of photography as an art form.

To this day, despite the proliferation of digital processing tools and techniques, Uelsmann continues to use traditional equipment and his almost magical darkroom skills have resulted in works of breathtaking intricacy – a visit to his website to look through some of his works from the past decade (and earlier) is well worth your time.

Like Cameron, Uelsmann’s work was initially not looked upon kindly by his contemporaries. Like Cameron, however, Uelsmann’s work has stood the test of time and is now being acknowledged for their groundbreaking disregard for the styles, norms and trends of the time – as such playing an important role in advancing the art of photographic.

Both Julia Margaret Cameron and Jerry Uelsmann have succeeded, in very different ways, to move beyond mere photography to create original works of art – in Cameron’s case, vividly personal, yet almost impressionistic portraits, and in Uelsmann’s case, surrealistic visions from the mind of their creator.

Inspiring stuff!

An uplifting tour through earthquake-ravaged Christchurch

While photographing the annual conference of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) in Christchurch recently, I had the privilege of going on a tour through the earthquake-ravaged city. It has been more than 2 years since a devastating earthquake hit Christchurch on 22 February 2011, killing 185 people, and fundamentally changing the lives of many, many more.

The funky, innovative dance-o-mat - a boom box built into an old laundromat washing machine - simply pop in a $2 coin and you can host your own dance party in the middle of Christchurch, right where the main restaurant strip used to be. (© All Rights Reserved)
The funky, innovative dance-o-mat – a boom box built into an old laundromat washing machine – simply pop in a $2 coin and you can host your own dance party in the middle of Christchurch, right where the main restaurant strip used to be.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The face of the city has changed completely – many areas that used to house shops, restaurants and more, are now flat, empty land, used mostly as car-parks. Even residents who knew their city by heart, get lost among the open spaces that have appeared in the inner city where well-known landmarks used to be. Amongst these ugly, industrial-looking spaces, however, the most amazingly innovative use of urban space is emerging – dance floors with a twist, temporary performance spaces, mini-golf courses made from rubble, and much more. For more info on the great initiatives taking place throughout Christchurch, visit the Gap Filler website.

One of the holes of the earthquake rubble mini golf course, spread out throughout the devastated Christchurch inner city. (© All Rights Reserved)
One of the holes of the earthquake-rubble-mini-golf course, spread out throughout the open spaces in Christchurch’s inner city.
(© All Rights Reserved)
The Pallet Pavillion - a temporary performance space for musicians and other performers, built on a demolished building site. (© All Rights Reserved)
The Pallet Pavillion – a temporary performance space for musicians and other performers, built on a demolished building site.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While a tour through the city is a harrowing experience, it is also an uplifting one, testimony to the human spirit and the commitment of a population to making the most of its circumstances. The city has a long way to go to regain its former glory, but given the tenacity and positive spirit of its residents, I have no doubt it will emerge an even greater city than before.

A special experience indeed!

Cardinal Richelieu and the creation of the table knife

According to Today in Science (a website I use quite often to find some arbitrary scientific topic for my daily blog) today, 13 May, is the day in 1637 that the table knife was created by Cardinal Richelieu of France.

Whether it actually happened on this exact day I was unable to confirm, but various sources seem to agree that it was in fact Cardinal Richelieu (Armand Jean du Plessis) who was responsible for creating the now common table knife with its rounded end. And it happened in the 1630’s, at least.

Spreading made easy, thanks to the wide-bladed, blunt-ended table knife.  (© All Rights Reserved)
Spreading made easy, thanks to the wide-bladed, blunt-ended table knife.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The story goes that Cardinal Richelieu got irritated by the brutish behaviour of men at the dining tables of the time, stabbing their daggers (which doubled as table cutlery) into chunks of meat and other food, or into the table, for that matter, if they needed their hands free. And even worse was their despicable habit of using the sharp daggers to pick their teeth at the end of the meal. To put an end to this behaviour, he ordered his kitchen staff to file off the sharp points of all the house knifes. The idea caught on, and it wasn’t long before this new style of rounded table knife became a trendy dinner accessory in upperclass French households.

In 1669, King Louis XIV of France banned pointed knives – at the table and as weapons – to try put an end to the culture of violence of the time. This further cemented the position of the round-ended table knife as preferred form of cutlery.

Over time, the exact shape and form of the table knife changed, becoming slightly wider to make it easier to scoop food onto a fork, and to make it easier to spread butter or other spreads onto a slice of bread. (Anyone who’s ever tried spreading butter onto bread using a carving knife will know what a frustrating process it can be.)

So next time you butter a slice of fresh bread, or tuck into a soft and juicy stew, remember Cardinal Richelieu, and his clever cutlery innovation from almost 400 years ago.

Gideon Sundback and the invention of the zipper

Time for some clever inventions again – today, 24 April, we celebrate the birthday of Gideon Sundback (24 April 1880 – 21 June 1954), the Swedish-born electrical engineer who is best known for his contribution to the development of the zipper.

In the decade between 1906 and 1914, while working for a number of different companies, Sundback made several meaningful contributions to the development of the zipper. While he did not come up with the original concept, he improved on the ideas of others, including Elias Howe, Whitcomb Judson and Max Wolff. One of the key problems Sundback solved was to create a version of the zipper that didn’t pull apart easily. He essentially did away with the hook-and-eye principle of earlier versions, and also increased the number of fastening elements. His version of the zipper included two sides with interlocking teeth, that are locked together or separated using a slider, much like the modern zipper we know today.

Gideon Sundback's 1914 'separable fastener' was almost identical to the zipper as we know it today. (© All Rights Reserved)
Gideon Sundback’s 1914 ‘separable fastener’ was almost identical to the zipper as we know it today.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Sundback also designed a machine to manufacture the zippers, which could produce about 100m of zipper per day. He incrementally improved his design, and the version he patented in 1914 (called the ‘Hookless No 2’) is essentially the same as the modern metal zipper.

Still called a ‘separable fastener’ up to this point, the zipper only became known as a ‘zipper’ when BF Goodrich coined the term in 1923 for the new fasteners used in their boots. Boots and tobacco pouches were the first widespread applications of the new separable fasteners, and it was only after the second world war, shortly before Sundback’s death, that the zipper gained widespread acceptance in the clothing industry.

In acknowledgement for his work, Sundback was included in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. Google also created a special commemorative zipper doodle on his birthday in 2012.

Creativity and innovation, cornerstones of scientific and artistic progress

It’s World Creativity and Innovation Day today. In fact, the whole preceding week, 15-21 April, is celebrated as World Creativity and Innovation Week. To quote the website, “World Creativity and Innovation Week, April 15-21, celebrates the unlimited potential of people to be open to and generate new ideas, be open to and make new decisions, and to be open to and take new actions that make the world a better place and make your place in the world better too.”

The importance of creativity and innovation can hardly be overestimated. Throughout the history of science and art, progress was sparked by the innovations of those individuals who nurtured and positively exploited their creativity.

Creativity and innovation - weighty subjects that impact on every aspect of our lives, from art to science, from mathematics to literature. (© All Rights Reserved)
Creativity and innovation – weighty subjects that impact on every aspect of our lives, from art to science, from mathematics to literature.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Of course loads have been said about the art of innovation, and many clever people have devoted their lives to the study of creativity. Yet these remain elusive subjects, with much disagreement as to what constitutes creativity, and how you can increase/improve your own creative abilities.

I’ve featured many inspirational individuals, who have been responsible for amazing creativity and innovation, on this blog in the past, and hope to feature more in future. Rather than attempting to turn this post into a meaningful, comprehensive overview on the science of creativity (which would be pretty much impossible anyway), let me rather simply applaud all those innovators who have dazzled the world with their creative contributions, however big or small – may the river of human innovation never run dry, and may every day be a creativity and innovation day.

Sony, heavyweight of Japanese electronic entertainment

It’s 11 April, and today we celebrate the birthday of Masaru Ibuka (11 Apr 1908 – 19 Dec 1998), Japanese electronics pioneer and co-founder of the Sony Corporation.

Sony started as a small post-WWII electronics and radio repair company, Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo, founded by Ibuka, who was joined soon after by his colleague, Akio Morita. Ibuka and Morita’s company changed it’s name to Sony in 1958. The name ‘Sony’, devised largely to make the company name easy for Westerners to pronounce and remember, was a combination of the Latin word ‘Sonus’ (the root of sonic and sound) and the familiar American term ‘Sonny’.

From the first colour television set, Sony Corporation has continued to set the pace in advancing television technology.(© All Rights Reserved)
From the first colour television set, Sony Corporation has continued to set the pace in advancing television technology.
(© All Rights Reserved)

From these small beginnings grew the Sony Corporation, one of the industry giants that changed the face of the Japanese electronics sector. Where earlier Japanese firms were more likely to simply make copies of Western products at cheaper prices, Sony was an innovator. Some of the many achievements of the Sony Corporation include introducing transistor technology into Japan, developing the world’s first transistor TV, pioneering colour television and introducing many consumer-electronics innovations such as the Walkman and the compact disk player. In the digital age, Sony has emerged as an important player in the mobile phone market, and as a true contender in the digital photography market, presenting a viable alternative to more traditional players such as Nikon and Canon. Through their PlayStation gaming consoles, Sony is also one of the main players in the electronic gaming industry.

In all, Sony Corporation is without doubt one of the most comprehensive electronic entertainment companies in the world, and in 2012 was ranked 87th in the Fortune Global 500.

It is not an overstatement to say that, through the Sony Corporation, Ibuka played an absolute key role in building international confidence in the Japanese electronics industry, and through that, rebuilding the Japanese economy in particular, and Asian economies in general.

The electrific Thomas Alva Edison, and you

11 February is, amusingly, known as Be Electrific Day. It’s the celebration of the birth of Thomas Alva Edison (11 Feb 1847 – Oct 1931), so today is obviously all about electricity. But electricity wasn’t the only domain Edison dabbled it – in fact he held the world patenting record, being granted a mindblowing 1093 patents in his lifetime. So today is also about being terrific, standing out, being the best you can be. This is the day to be ‘electrific’, a term first coined by inspirational speaker Carolyn Finch in 1998 – she defined being electrific is “an abbreviation for an electrification project – which means to put light where light has not been before.”

Be Electrific Day - the perfect time to allow all facets of your unique brilliance to shine brightly. (© All Rights Reserved)
Be Electrific Day – the perfect time to allow all facets of your unique brilliance to shine brightly.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Talking about Edison – among his dazzling array of patents are the first commercially practical incandescent lightbulb; an electric vote-recording machine, a phonograph, storage batteries, a dictaphone and a mimeograph.

1879 was, literally, Edison’s light bulb year – he built his first high-resistance, incandescent bulb in his laboratory in January 1879, and from that success worked tirelessly on thousands of filament substances before settling on the carbon filament presented for public demonstration on 31 December of the same year.

Beyond that, however, I suppose at a symbolic level Edison’s whole life can be considered a light bulb life. With the light bulb often being associated with creativity and invention, I guess it’s fair to sat that Thomas Edison had more light bulb moments than most.

I cannot help but wonder what it is in the wiring of some people’s brains that result in such seemingly unlimited inventiveness. Are they smarter than everyone else, or is it just a specific way of looking at the world?

But let me not get started on the topics of creativity and innovation, otherwise this post may never end. So for now, let’s just take Edison as a role model for the day, and strive to ‘electrificate’ as best we can!

The umbrella, a tool of many uses

Today is Umbrella Day. Whatever you call it – brolly, parasol, gamp, bumbershoot – there’s no denying the umbrella is one super-useful accessory.

I haven’t been able to find out where it originated, but there seems to be references to umbrellas in all the ancient cultures. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese all found good use for some or other form of the trusty umbrella – for protection from the elements, as a stylish fashion accessory, in religious ceremonies, even as a symbol of social standing.

The brolly - a useful lighting accessory, used with a speedlight. (© All Rights Reserved)
The brolly – a useful lighting accessory, especially used on location with a speedlight.
(© All Rights Reserved)

But of course the main use of brollies are to keep you dry in the rain, and cool in the sun. And while they’re far from perfect (they flip inside out in strong winds, they drip, they can cause serious bodily harm to bystanders), it’s difficult to imagine how the basic design can be much improved. The last really significant design update has been the development of an umbrella with segmented ribs that can be folded in three, to create a much smaller folded unit. Not that inventors the world over are not continuously trying to come up with improved concepts – rain-forecasting umbrellas, biodegradable umbrellas, see-through umbrellas that rest on your shoulders like a backpack, two-person umbrellas, even umbrellas that can store water so you can later water your plants with them. Then there’s the Hollinger umbrella, a teardrop-shaped design with a distinctive rounded front and tapered back to optimise wind flow around it, enabling it to withstand much higher winds. The elongated back also shields your legs from rain while you’re walking.

Personally, being a photographer, my immediate connotation when thinking about a brolly is less about the weather, and more about photographic lighting. Umbrellas made with a reflective inside can reflect the light from a flash light unit pointed away from the subject you are photographing, to create a softer light than having the flash point directly at the subject. Alternatively, an umbrella sporting a translucent cloth can become a ‘shoot-through umbrella’. Placed between your flash unit and subject, this umbrella can help create lovely soft and diffused lighting.

While photographing with an umbrella doesn’t give you the same level of control that you can achieve with specialised lighting accessories like softboxes, honeycombs, and the like, their portability does make them very useful, especially when used as a makeshift on-location lighting unt when used together with an off-camera flash or speedlight.

So here’s to the brolly, the gamp, the parasol – it may be far from perfect, but it’s hard to imagine the world without it.

Showing some appreciation for the many wonders of Bubble Wrap

Today is Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day. And what a weird, wacky and fun invention it is!

With cushioning provided by hundreds of regularly spaced, air-filled plastic bubbles, it not only provides a really clever and practical solution for keeping packaged products safe and secure, but I’m sure if a survey had to be done on the most addictive toys ever, bubble wrap should no doubt rank quite high on the list. I’ve never met anyone who, when left alone with a piece of bubble wrap for a few minutes, did not start popping away at the hundreds of individual little plastic-encased air bubbles. Which is weird, when you think about it, because you’re effectively rendering the bubble wrap useless, destroying the very thing that makes it useful. But it’s such fun that you cannot stop!

Bubble wrap addiction
It’s addictive! Doesn’t this just make you want to go and find a piece of bubble wrap and start popping?
(© All Rights Reserved)

Bubble wrap was invented in 1957 when two inventors, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, set out to develop 3-dimensional plastic wall-paper (by sealing two shower curtains together, capturing various different shaped air bubbles between the sheets). The concept failed, but their design proved to be a perfect packaging solution. Pursuing this business opportunity, Fielding founded the Sealed Air Corporation and started marketing the Bubble Wrap® brand.

Acknowledging the compulsion of bubble wrap popping, the Sealed Air Corporation’s corporate offices is said to have ‘stress relief boxes’ – containers filled with Bubble Wrap® for employees to pop. Another cute initiative from Sealed Air is their Annual Bubble Wrap® Competition for Young Inventors, where kids are encouraged to come up with new inventions using Bubble Wrap® in novel ways outside of packaging. Some amazing inventions from these competitions have included a floating garden (floating on water with the aid of bubble wrap), a disposable, low cost cell phone holder, a wrist cushion for people suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, and “Petri Bubbles”, an inexpensive alternative to petri dishes in labs. (I told you kids make great inventors!)

An interesting fact (not verified) that I came across is that more than 250 Facebook pages are dedicated to Bubble Wrap® and its generic derivatives – more proof of the addictive appeal of this amazing product.

So go ahead, grab some bubble wrap and start popping – you know you want to!