Can 5G Breathe Life Back Into a Moribund Camera Market?

The rollout of 5G mobile technology may have taken a bizarre turn this year, but wireless carriers nonetheless continued to light up their 5G networks throughout 2020.

There’s been no shortage of (often breathless) commentary about 5G’s potential to transform everything from urban mobility to entertainment. Yet if any product segment was in need of a 5G fillip, it’s the digital still camera market.

The digital camera market limped into 2020 and, like a fighter wobbled by an earlier punch, was floored by the one-two combo of a pandemic and economic collapse. According to the Camera and Imaging Products Association (CIPA), camera makers shipped roughly 1 million units in September (the latest month in their forecast). In September 2019, the industry moved 1.5 million units and in 2018, about 1.7 million. Nearly every month in 2020, the industry has underperformed 2019’s monthly shipment numbers by around 500,000 to 1 million units. It’s unlikely that this dynamic will change significantly by year’s end.

There’s no chance that 5G can reorient the market towards growth, but it could help stanch at least some of the bleeding. That’s because 5G does offer some tangible benefits for professional users, who are now a crucial, if not the crucial, customer base for many camera makers as casual snapshooters have migrated to smartphones.

Here’s what 5G inside a digital camera could unlock:

Viable live-streaming: For both pros and consumers alike, video streaming from a conventional still camera can be a cumbersome process that requires extra accessories, or dedicated live streaming cameras that lack the interchangeable lenses and large sensors so integral to image quality. For event videographers, the ability to live stream with the same camera that they’d used to capture stills could be of value.

On location submissions: For photojournalists and event photographers working on location, the ability to seamlessly upload images to a newsroom, editor or client directly from the camera would definitely improve workflow efficiency. Even for more casual users, the ability to automatically upload images to a cloud storage site like Google Photos would be useful.

Wireless tethering: Many professional photographers physically connect their cameras to computers in order to rapidly transfer images into software programs and have the images displayed on large monitors—the better for clients to watch the shoot unfold and make comments and offer direction on the fly. Because of the file sizes produced by today’s high-end digital cameras, older iterations of Wi-Fi have never really been a viable option for so-called “tethered” shooting. 5G (and Wi-Fi 6) can deliver speeds that could make some wireless tethered shooting scenarios possible.

Improved AI functionality: Though features derived from machine learning are starting to make their way into still cameras, they still lack the processing power to handle robust artificial intelligence applications. With always-on 5G, cameras could theoretically offload some processing tasks that aren’t time-sensitive for camera operations—such image editing or object recognition-based tagging—to the cloud.

Camera makers have dabbled with cellular connectivity before, with less-than-stellar results. If manufacturers are to avoid a repeat of that history, they should view 5G as a means to end and not the end itself. Wireless connectivity needs to solve problems or deliver novel, useful features out of the gate if it’s to have any chance of helping stabilize a market in apparent free fall.