Tim: Mike, what is it you are holding in your hand right now?
Mike: We have here the Edgertronic high-speed video camera. This is a product that we’ve been in development for about two years, and we’ve been shipping for six months starting in December of 2013. We have quite a few of these cameras already in the field and a lot of customers that are doing very interesting things with it.
Tim: When you say high-speed, can you quantify that a bit?
Mike: The camera has a range of resolutions: At the highest resolution which is 1280 x 1024 we can shoot approximately 500 frames per second. At the common 720p resolution, we can shoot 701 frames per second. And by reducing resolution, for example, a VGA resolution 640X480 we can shoot 1850 frames per second all the way down to 18,000 frames per second at very small resolutions.
Tim: Now there are other high-speed cameras in the world, what makes this a different proposition?
Mike: Well, what makes this camera different is it’s accessible. There are many cameras right now that you can buy that have this exact same level of performance—they are built around the same technology, the same sensors. If you look at our spec sheet and their spec sheet, they are virtually identical. But those other cameras cost $22,000 up to $50,000—this camera is $5495. Through clever engineering and skilful design, we’ve made this camera accessible to a market that’s previously been locked out.
Tim: Now that market includes what kind of uses? Where do you see this camera being used?
Mike: We are seeing this camera used in five main areas:
The first area is industrial. Imagine some company that has a production line—it’s building something, for example, it might be a bottling plant or it might be a production line that makes cardboard boxes. Invariably these production lines have problems when things jam, things break. And somebody needs to figure out what’s going wrong and get the production line back running; otherwise, they are losing money every second of every day.
Another application is research. We’re having people that are doing basic research and using this to understand the world around us.
A third application is educational—both at the high school level and at the university level, we are seeing these used in physics classes, in demonstrations about materials, fluid flow, various fundamental science applications.
The fourth application that we’ve seen, and it’s kind of a no-brainer, is the entertainment market. We all know that high-speed video is cool and there are a lot of shows that capitalize on this, and show high-speed video as a key part of their presentation. So this camera now allows a number of film makers that don’t have $50,000 to $100,000 or more to spend on a high-speed video camera to get that same level of performance—suddenly it opens the door for them to make high-speed part of their repertoire.
And then the final application we see is the enthusiast-hobbyist market. These are people that just know that high speed video is cool. They’ve been seeing it forever, they’ve always wanted to do it—and now they can.
Tim: Are you in that category yourself? What do you take pictures of at such high speeds?
Mike: To be honest, since I started this company I don’t have a whole lot of time to do much of anything other than work on this product. Probably if I had more time, I would be getting more sleep. But this actually started a long time ago. When I was a kid, I was really fascinated by photography, and I got into photography. My dad got me a book that had some of the legendary photos that Doc Edgerton at MIT had taken—I thought that was really cool! He said, “You know, could you take anything like this?” I said, “Well, not with the stuff I have.” I knew how expensive the strobes that Doc Edgerton was using and in the early ‘70s, those strobes cost $2000 apiece. As a kid and as a teenager, I didn’t have 2000, I had ten bucks. So I figured a way to take a ten-dollar consumer electronic flash and modify it so I could get exposures on the order of 1/10,000th of a second. I was able to take some pictures of golf balls being hit with a golf club and getting that classic egg-shaped squish of the golf ball—that was pretty cool! After that, I had a career in electronics. I designed quite a few computers, consumer electronics, I’ve got products that are in the computer museum, I’ve got products that have gone into orbit, products that have been used undersea, medical devices, industrial devices—a large number of products some you might have even known.
Tim: Let’s talk about the details of this product. Could you show it in close-up?
Mike: So it’s actually not a very typical looking camera. It’s a little box with a lens on it. Inside is a very powerful computer and a lot of very specialized electronics.
Tim: What’s the sensor you’ve got in there?
Mike: So this has a special high speed CMOS sensor. It is approximately APS-C sized and when used with the Nikon F Mount lenses it gives you approximately a 2X zoom factor. Which is typical enough for most people these days, no one expects a lot with digital cameras. So it is very familiar in that way. But beyond that, this camera is unlike the typical cameras that you’ve seen—in a number of ways: One is just the sheer amount of data that it has to deal with. This camera is dealing with data on the order of gigabytes of data a second coming off of the sensor. So we have a lot of specialized and dedicated hardware that can deal with that flood of pixel data. Another thing that’s unique about the camera is the simplicity and elegance of its interface. If you notice, this camera doesn’t have a shutter button, it doesn’t have a viewfinder, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that a normal camera does. It’s designed to be hooked up to your laptop. You connect to it with an Ethernet cable, and the entire control of the camera—viewfinder, framing, setting exposure, controlling the camera, setting the shutter speeds, setting the framerate, resolution is all done through a web browser that runs in your laptop.
Tim: Now you mentioned that with these USB ports you got in here, there’s potential of these for wireless connection down the road.
Mike: That’s correct. We are working on software releases that will allow you to buy some wireless Wi-Fi dongles and plug them into the USB ports. You also can plug a memory card or memory stick into the USB port or a hard drive. So if you’re capturing a lot of videos, and a 64-gig SD card isn’t enough, then you can hook up your 4 terabyte hard drive to it.
Tim: I notice you have a power connection, but you certainly don’t have the batteries in it?
Mike: No. That was one of our design issues. A battery pack that is this size would add to the weight of it and give you maybe a couple of hours, maybe four hours of runtime. That might be good for some people; other people might want more runtime. When we designed this camera one of our goals was to make it simple, make it inexpensive, and also to make it very small. Our first application that we saw, that we talked about is industrial. Industrial users will have some assembly line, some piece of machinery and a failure is occurring in it. We’ll need to be able to put the camera inside of that machine to see the event that they are trying to capture and understand. If we make a camera the size of a lunch box it is not going to fit in some cases. So one of our design goals was to make the camera as small and light as possible without getting to the point where we start to get exorbitant in the price of the product. At some point, as you miniaturize something then the price starts to get out of control.
Tim: Right now, we are talking something a bit north of $5000?
Mike: Yeah. This camera right now sells for $5495 for a color camera, and $5695 for a black and white. Now people ask: “Why would I want the black and white if it costs more?” Well, the black and white costs more just due to economies of scale. We pay more for the sensors—unfortunately, we have to pass that cost on.
Tim: That’s quite true with the Red, if they need the black and white that costs more.
Mike: That is correct. As does Leica. But the advantage that you have with black and white is since it doesn’t have the Bayer color filter, you have an advantage in resolution and you also have an advantage of 2 f-stops in light sensitivity. People will soon discover with high-speed video, if they haven’t had any experience, that lighting becomes an issue. Every day, people are content to shoot with shutter speeds of 30 to 1/500th of a second. But this is a high-speed video camera—most people don’t shoot at shutter speeds below 500th of a second. As a matter of fact, I don’t think any of the demos we have today have shutter speeds under 500th of a second, maybe even a 1000. I’ve shot videos with shutter speeds all the way up to 1/100,000th of a second—that’s 10 microseconds. When you have shutter times that are that short, you need an awful lot of light, because there is just not a lot of time to capture the photons while the shutter is open.
Tim: And a lot of storage too.
Mike: And a lot of storage.
Tim: One more thing—would you mind addressing for people who may be as imaging-naïve as I am, what kind of shutter you are using here, how do you achieve them at very high speeds?
Mike: So this camera is a true high-speed video camera, and one of the characteristics that make it a high-speed video camera is it’s based around the sensor that uses a global shutter. Long ago, in the early days of digital cameras and digital video all cameras had global shutters. And as technology changed, they were able to improve the characteristics of those cameras and those sensors by going to what’s called the rolling shutter. For more details on the difference between a rolling shutter and a global shutter you can go to Wikipedia—they’ve got an excellent webpage that has great descriptions as well as pictures that show the differences. For a consumer product, a rolling shutter is a great technology use—it’s cheap, it gives you high pixel counts, high sensitivity, great image quality. And it works well as long as things aren’t moving too fast. But for high-speed photography the reason you want the camera is for something that’s moving too fast to see—that’s the whole reason for having high speed. If it’s not moving fast, you don’t need the high speed.
Tim: You want a series of stills.
Mike: You want a series of stills. And what a global shutter does, unlike the rolling shutter, is it captures the image all at the exact same moment. So when I have that 10-microsecond exposure every pixel is exposed for the exact same time during that 10-microsecond exposure. That’s not true of the typical rolling shutter cameras. So what’s the bottom line? The bottom line is: If it doesn’t have a global shutter, it’s not a true high-speed camera—it’s as simple as that. If you want a camera for high-speed that entails motion, you are taking videos of something that’s moving and it’s moving really fast. And for those cases, you have to have a global shutter.
Tim: Let me ask you one more question:
Mike: Go ahead.
Tim: Tell our readers what your first computer was.
Mike: My first computer was a DEC PDP-8 that I scrounged out of a bunch of discarded parts from a local high school.
Tim: And how long did that work?
Mike: I actually used it during college—I actually wrote my thesis paper on it—back when people didn’t have PCs or laser printers or any of the stuff we take for granted.