We first wrote about the Wi-Pics wireless transmitter back in early 2003, when it was nothing more than an early prototype, and a funny-looking one at that. It was tucked in the corner of the Dice America booth at that year's PMA trade show.
When we wrote about the device a year later, at PMA 2004, it had morphed into a sleek beltpack unit designed to transmit photographs over wired Ethernet or wireless Wi-Fi connection directly from most any camera that accepts CompactFlash cards. And its barcode scanner and data embedding capabilities meant the device was to be aimed squarely at the higher-volume portrait market. Under the engineering guidance of Dice America's Dave Rea, Wi-Pics was shaping up to be a really useful tool for certain pro photography segments.
As of PMA 2005, which wraps up today in Orlando, Florida, Wi-Pics is done and about ready to ship. Most of the basic specs of Wi-Pics have not changed much, if at all, since our 2004 article. The top-of-the-line version of the several models planned is still to be comprised of a wireless (802.11a/b/g) transmitter, wired Ethernet connector, internal laptop-size hard drive (spec'd at 20GB now), twin CompactFlash Type I/II card slots (both are FAT32-capable), a barcode reader, external power input port and both a fixed antenna for 802.11b/g and an SMA port for an accessory antenna (mandatory if using the unit in 802.11a mode).
It's still to be configurable via a web browser and it still must be powered by an external power source (most any battery or converter capable of 6-24V DC output should work, says Rea, as long as it's fitted with a 1/4 inch (6.3mm) coaxial-style plug).
Wi-Pics (Photo courtesy Dice America)
Perhaps the most significant change in Wi-Pics' design is the link to the camera. As before, a dummy CompactFlash card is inserted into the camera's card slot, and a cable runs from that to the Wi-Pics unit on the photographer's hip (or, if preferred, to a fixed location in a studio setup). A year ago, the tentative plan was to offered modified card slot doors, ones with a hole drilled into them, for popular camera models.
Now, Dice America has dispensed with that approach in favour of a cable that is thin enough to pass through the edge of the card door while still allowing the card door to close. The use of a flat, flexible circuit cable that's 3/10's of a millimetre thick and embedded in a material called KAPTON makes this possible, while still retaining good durability and without apparently reducing the throughput or reliability of the data connection. Even if the circuit cable is partly folded to exit the camera. The 5-6 inches of circuit cable is long enough to run down beneath the camera to a transition box that's linked to a more traditional PVC-jacketed, twisted-pair cable.
If this works as described (we've not seen the new cable arrangement, and it's not shown in the supplied picture below), it should effectively solve what was an obvious design drawback before - having to use a modified door, and also having a semi-rigid cable possibly poking the photographer in the cheek with cameras that have rear-facing card slots.
Inserting the dummy CompactFlash card into a Fujifilm Finepix S2 Pro (Photo courtesy Dice America)
Rea indicates that they expect fairly broad compatibility with both compact and digital SLR cameras, as long as the camera accepts a CompactFlash card and is physically capable of utilizing the magic KAPTON cable. Essentially, the camera doesn't know that the dummy CompactFlash card it's sending data to is actually a front for the Wi-Pics unit, so the camera itself requires no special features or modifications to be compatible. So far, Dice America has tested the following cameras:
- Canon EOS-1D, EOS 10D, 20D, Digital Rebel and Powershot G3/G5/G6
- Nikon D1X
- Fujifilm FinePix S1 Pro, S2 Pro, S3 Pro and S20
- Kodak DCS Pro 14/n
- Olympus E-1
All these models work just fine with Wi-Pics, says Rea. And, as noted, he expects many other models to work just fine also.
With wireless transmitters available from Canon and Nikon now, one of the key differentiators being emphasized by Dice America is Wi-Pics' ability to both read barcodes and embed barcode data and other information into a picture file as it passes through the unit. Wi-Pics uses either the EXIF image description or user comment field (the user chooses which one) to place up to five pieces of information in JPEGs coming out of the camera:
- User-definable field 1
- User-definable field 2
- Auxiliary (barcode data now, data pulled from magnetic strip readers or other such devices in the future)
Wi-Pics inside the optional fanny pack (Photo courtesy Dice America)
A typical Wi-Pics workflow that utilizes metadata embedding might look like this (note that this mini workflow describes the shooting of one picture at a time to simplify the explanation; Wi-Pics will handle burst of pictures as well):
- The photographer scans the bar code of the subject into the Wi-Pics unit, then shoots a picture of that subject.
- The Wi-Pics unit receives the picture and places it on one half of a two-partition internal hard drive, or to one of two CompactFlash cards inserted into the unit's twin card slots. A copy of the picture is made, and metadata is embedded into the copy as it's moved to either the other partition on the hard drive or to the second CompactFlash card. The embedded metadata will be comprised of the five bits of information noted above, including the photographer's name, the location of the shoot (i.e. Portrait Studio B), the barcode data and whatever else that's required for downstream processing of the files (that additional info gets stuffed into the two user-definable fields).
- The picture is transmitted over a wired or wireless link or, if the photographer isn't within range of the network, stored for later transmission.
If the file type won't accept new data being embedded, as is the case with most cameras' RAW formats, says Rea, the Wi-Pics unit will instead create an XML file containing the metadata, and link that to the picture. Wi-Pics also provides file renaming options that can be used to store some of the same information. The data embedding features work even without the barcode scanner version of Wi-Pics. Though, obviously, barcode data can't be embedded in that case.
Four different Wi-Pics configurations will be offered initially:
- The basic package that includes the Wi-Pics device and a camera interface cable, but no internal hard drive or barcode scanner, will have a manufacturer's suggested list price (MSRP) of US$1700 in the U.S.
- The basic package plus internal 20GB hard drive (it isn't possible for the user to install one after the fact, owing to slightly different firmware in hard drive-equipped units), but no barcode scanner, will have a MSRP of US$2000.
- The basic package plus the barcode scanner, but no internal hard drive, will have a MSRP of US$2150.
- The basic package plus the barcode scanner and internal 20GB hard drive will have a MSRP of US$2450.
A battery will not be included in any of the four configurations, and it's expected that a third-party battery from Quantum or Digital Camera Battery will be what's used to power the unit in the field. Dice America does, however, plan to offer an inexpensive 6 volt DC battery and charger as an optional extra.
It will be possible for the end user to upgrade the firmware, both to fix bugs and to extend the functionality of the unit. Functionality enhancement plans have not been set, says Rea, though the company is looking at adding digital wallet-type functionality by enabling the card slots to be used to copy pictures from CompactFlash cards to the internal hard drive of Wi-Pics units so-equipped. Plus, a future Wi-Pics configuration will have a USB port in place of the bar code scanner, to enable connection to devices like magnetic strip readers, external bardcode scanners and RFID tag readers.
Note: the Wi-Pics web site seems to indicate that the USB model is to be available at launch, but we've confirmed with Dice America that it's actually to follow at a later date).
Wi-Pics is slated to ship from Dice America on March 7, 2005, with dealers receiving their shipments soon after that. A network of pro photo retailers is expected to carry the different configurations. Dice America will also be selling Wi-Pics directly.
The Wi-Pics web site has several PDF's of information available for download on the device and wireless networking.
Update, February 24, 2005: We've sorted out a discrepancy between the prices given to us by Dice America and those appearing on the Wi-Pics web site. Now, the prices listed above are both correct and in sync with the Wi-Pics order page. The number of cameras tested with Wi-Pics has also grown; we've added the newly-tested models to that section of the article.