The Internet of Things Next Thing

What do you think of when you think of the Internet of Things (IoT)? For many of us, it’s tiny wearables reminding us that we sit too much (and eat too much and drink too much) or thermostats that are easier to program than the 1970s-era monstrosities they’ve replaced. Toothbrushes, running shorts and doorbells have also been dragged under the IoT umbrella.

But, until recently, a fairly obvious candidate has not been: digital cameras.

It was not until 2016 that Nikon became the first camera maker to incorporate a key IoT technology, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), into a pair of DSLRs. Calling its capabilities “Snapbridge,” Nikon uses BLE to automatically pair with recognized mobile devices and begin transferring low-resolution still images from the camera to the phone—without any interaction on the user’s part. Users happily snap away on their DSLR while images automatically migrate onto their phone, even if the camera is powered off.

Using BLE solves a major pain point for digital camera vendors as they attempt to fend off further sales erosion from smartphones. For all their superior optics and larger image sensors, digital cameras remain painfully disconnected from the social networks where most people share and enjoy photography. While BLE doesn’t enable direct posting from camera to social network, it enables the next best thing: DSLR and mirrorless camera images that are nearly instantly and easily shareable.

And yet, camera makers have hardly jumped at the chance to join the IoT. Nikon was the lone manufacturer incorporating BLE in its models in 2016. Others, like Canon, have since adopted the technology but only to keep an “always on” connection for quicker Wi-Fi pairing. Canon doesn’t use BLE to seamlessly and automatically transfer images to mobile devices. Indeed, only one other camera manufacturer to date, Fujifilm, has embraced the full potential of BLE—and that in only one camera model.

So what gives?

For one thing, camera makers face a thorny dilemma when it comes to wireless image transfers. The very same large image sensors that deliver superior image quality next to smartphones also create huge files. BLE is a fairly low bandwidth wireless technology. Nikon originally split the difference by sending only very low-resolution images over BLE—much lower, in fact, than the files smartphone cameras create. (Nikon has since added an option to transfer full resolution files.) Meanwhile, camera makers have focused their mobile app development efforts on Wi-Fi-enabled remote control and high bandwidth, full-resolution image transfers.

And while BLE consumes little energy (obviously), it still requires some battery power to operate. Mirrorless cameras, which have notoriously short battery lives relative to DSLRs, need to conserve all the juice they can.

Still, given that BLE addresses a critical weakness of traditional cameras in the smartphone age, it’s likely more camera makers will follow Nikon’s lead. It may not be enough to arrest the market’s decline, but it could staunch the bleeding.