There was a lot to digest at the Sony product announcement on September 12. Although the technical features of the new products excite me, the enhancement that really ignited my interest is the ability to find and install apps that extend the functionality of the camera. I think it’s completely appropriate to call cameras with apps smart cameras (like smart phones).
Apps are found through Sony’s PlayMemories photo portal, which has several incarnations and can be accessed on the web, a PS3 as well as through smartphone apps. You can check it out here: PlayMemories
In the last few years, cameras have become consumer upgradable. After you’ve purchased the camera, the manufacturer may release a firmware update. The process isn’t always straightforward, but essentially you download and install the upgrade. The new version fixes bugs or adds new functionality to the camera’s software. In service upgrades are a good first step, and have been particularly beneficial to Sony’s NEX series.
Sony’s new feature enables you to download apps to the camera, in the same way you can download apps to a smartphone. This functionality will be available on the NEX5R (October, body only: $650) and NEX6 (November, body only: $850) cameras. A couple of apps were demoed at the launch, and six are planned to be available in October, when the NEX5R ships. Other apps, some of which are demoed in a Sony promo video are planned for later release.
To install an app, you must be connected to a Wi-Fi network. From the camera’s Main menu, select the Applications menu. A list of installed apps appears, which include a Camera Apps portal for more apps. You select your new app from the list and it downloads and installs. I installed an app during the demo and the process was quick and easy.
Here’s the list of announced apps, some of which will be available in October, all of which would be free:
Direct Upload: Adds the ability to upload directly from the camera to Facebook or the Sony PlayMemories site. Duh.
Picture Effect Plus: This adds additional creative effects including the interesting HDR painting, water colour and illustration modes already available on the RX100.
One new feature is the ability to combine two partial colour selections in an image. These additional effects are not integrated into the camera’s main menu, but are accessed through the apps menu.
This might be confusing or frustrating as various effects are accessed in different ways. Between the Picture Effects and Creative Style menus on the NEX5N, I’ve already found it difficult to remember which settings are where even after taking over five thousand images.
And just to reiterate what I’ve already mentioned in several reviews: it should be possible to save a RAW file along with the effected image, so that you have both. Other manufacturers do it, why not Sony? This should definitely be in the next firmware upgrade – or an app.
Bracket Pro: This enables the camera to take three exposures with different settings using a single shutter press. This much is expected. Sony takes this to the next level by enabling settings other than aperture to the bracket. Using Bracket Pro you may select different shutter speeds, aperture settings, focus points or even with and without flash. I can see value in this one.
MultiFrame NR: Not much detail provided about this (in fact not mentioned on the promo web site), I expect it’s similar to the six exposures combined into a single image as we’ve already seen in other models. This is nice to have, but should really have been included in the firmware.
Photo Retouch: This feature includes cropping, adjusting brightness, saturation and contrast as well as adding effects like “soft skin” after the image has been taken. I can see using the horizontal adjustment function all the time, as I rarely seem to be able to take a level picture. As long as the original is also preserved, these are very useful on a camera that can immediately upload to Facebook.
Smart Remote: This is cool. After installing the app on the camera and your smartphone (iOS and Android), you can view the image that the camera sees on the phone and click the shutter. Once the picture is taken, it’s transferred to the phone. I can’t wait to try this out on my bird feeder.
TimeLapse: Demoed in the video. Need it, want it, make it happen soon.
Cinematic Photo: Demoed in the video. Not sure, but it seems to add some stop frame motion (like animated GIFs) to an image. I’ll have to play with this to see how useful or interesting this might be.
The Sony reps told me that Sony would continue to introduce apps, some of which might have a purchase price of a few dollars.
I would additionally encourage Sony to make a software development kit available to third party developers, as I believe this would benefit both consumers and Sony. Once you have a camera loaded with apps, it feels much more personalized. And the functionality of the camera may expand in ways that no-one can yet anticipate. I’m sure that Instagram and many other developers creating smartphone camera apps would jump at this opportunity. This would not only extend their market, but as the functions of the NEX series are far beyond the iPhone, would enable them to create more powerful and interesting apps.
This would be a big step, and requires new levels of security that may not yet be part of the camera software, but would be extremely powerful. This step is part of the innovation and forward thinking that I expect from Sony – I hope that it’s the first step towards a very different camera marketplace. I like the concept of smart cameras.