The Digital Ecosystem: From Prints to Screens—to Solids

The Digital Ecosystem: From Prints to Screens—to Solids


Have you ever been about to make an outlandish prediction only to have it come true before you say it in print? No, just me then? For a few years I’ve prognosticated a slightly creepy way people might one day “output hard copy” of a sort—something physical from their most precious pictures instead of just on-screen images. But “one day” is today. You can get it now. What am I talking about? Read on.

Screens versus Output
It wasn’t only the sensor that killed the easy profits in imaging; the display was also an accomplice. Yes, pixels/photo sites that convert photons to electrical charges meant we no longer relied on film to capture an image—and there went the margins in media and processing. But without display screens, customers would still be paying to see any of their pictures, digital or not.

Instead, everyone today sees their shots as soon as they are taken on the display on the camera or phone—and sees favorite images they or friends and family have taken on 27-inch desktop monitors or even bigger TVs.

So of course, today the immediate tactic is to streamline the process for customers to make prints from their phone photos. But is that the only long-term strategy? No.

The first alternative is already proving profitable for many: putting pictures in places and on physical things that screens can’t touch. Yes, we’ve had pics on mouse pads for more than a decade, but you can’t build a business on pads and coffee mugs. (Though I recall when I first saw my picture printed on a cookie, I thought people would pay for that. Indeed, my mom still has the stale cookie, but that didn’t pan out for the printers/bakers.)

But new ideas are proving profitable. When I interviewed Artsy Couture founder Ryan Millman, he was all-but ecstatic at how well his firm’s new print products were doing, particularly the photo blocks. As the name implies, they are really just blocks with photos printed on all sides. Of course, efficiently manufacturing them proved to be a challenge. But now they are selling well, as they are marketed not as just another thing to print a picture on but as solid design elements in the home that complement the furniture and other décor.

Well yes, you might say, but you are not marketing furniture—how can you sell a print? There is, of course, something to the notion that securing significant snapshots means hard copy, not hard drives. But a decade of trying to scare people into printing has hardly proven fruitful; it’s thankfully a rare product or industry that succeeds through fear. (“You’ll lose your pictures forever if you don’t print them!”) We should instead focus on the positive aspects of custom photo books, for example: how they are better for telling a story than a slideshow, that they memorialize an event better than a DVD, and especially how people enjoy bonding over the physical object they are holding more than they would solitarily staring at a screen.
Sharing Shots Drives Prints

There is a benefit to screens: they make sharing photos far simpler. Instead of making multiple prints, stuffing envelopes and paying for postage, nowadays we just click a button. And sharing photos significantly drives photo capture: when we know that our shots are seen by friends and family, we are motivated to take more of them. They see our photos and take more of their own. Comments on photos give everyone the feedback they desire, and spur even more picture taking. Fine, you say, who does that help besides Facebook?

It can help everyone on the output side as well, for a simple reason: it deepens the pool from which potential printers can draw special images. If I go to a party for example, I’ll take pictures of my friends having a good time. A decade ago, that’d be the end of it; it was a rare party shot that was shared around, and then only an embarrassing one. But now my friends would see good pictures of themselves having a good time. And I wouldn’t just have a few awkward selfies snapped at arm’s length: I’d see their photos of me enjoying the event. And that means that all of us are much, much more likely to see a photo that truly memorializes a special moment. And that’d be a special photo we’d want to do special things with—not a 4×6, but permanent wall art or room décor.

Or something else.

Something Solid
As many of us in the imaging industry have said for a decade, prints and other output will never be entirely replaced by screens for a simple reason: we are tactile creatures. We like to hold things. We live in the physical universe, not a digital one; and no matter how high a display’s pixel density, a good large print is more real, more pleasurable, and has much more impact.

But what is more real than a large print? Not just a print wrapped around a block. No, I’m talking 3D—and not the 3D that is simply a stereoscopic screen image we see through goggles. I mean a 3D solid object that recreates something significant. What would you rather have, a picture or a recreation of something special, something you could hold in your hands, and turn around to see from all sides? Not just a print. You can make it “real.” Physically manifest.

What is that something special? Well, it could be anything, but at the start of this I promised something outlandish and perhaps even creepy—at first. I’m talking babies. Think about it: babies are already one of the most-photographed things there are. These days, new parents are likely taking a picture every hour if not every minute, determined to document every possible bit of progress in their child’s development.

Then a year later, many parents love their toddlers but miss the baby. And then they have a kid in school, and reminisce about the toddler. Here photos don’t convey the feeling of something they saw, that they felt, every day.

So a few years back, I suggested that eventually parents would have full wraparound 3D shots taken of their babies, of their toddler, of their kids at all ages. It wouldn’t just be lines marked on a ruler on a door frame to show how they got taller. There’d be full digital reproductions of every stage of the child’s growth.
And then some parents, I guessed, would have solid models output from those 3D files—in effect, a statue of their baby.

As I said, it was a guess that I thought was years off. Wrong. It’s already happened. Hard to be a prognosticator these days; the future comes fast.

First, adults are getting 3D versions of themselves: for example, Digiteyezer of France will take your photo in a kiosk, and they will either put a 3D avatar in your favorite game or make a solid model of your head in a gaming outfit. Other companies offer similar chotskies, and they’re gaining popularity. Screenwriter John August this summer received a 3D bust of himself and tweeted, “I’ve been 3D-printed, and now mere photographs feel insufficient.”

Dallas-based Captured Dimensions started using an array of 60 SLRs to capture every angle of a person simultaneously, and combined those shots into a 3D image from which it could have a 3D figurine created. As the simu-shots are faster than previous rotate-and-scan 3D capture methods, it proved perfect for those notoriously difficult photo subjects—babies. And now the company provides 3D replicas of children, or of parents holding their offspring.

Not weird enough? How’s this for a final straw: 3D embryos. That’s right: at Tecnologia Humana 3D, sonogram fetal scans are rendered in plastic, and parents-to-be can hold a replica of their child before it’s even born! Can you say future shock? I can!

But that’s me, and our generation. When I told my brother-in-law about the possibility of 3D replicas of his kids, he was creeped out. But his kids will soon think of 3D output as a common, everyday thing—much as we’ve come from only having cameras that were kept in our house except for special events to accepting everyday devices kept in our pockets for all occasions. Times change fast, especially in the imaging industry.

Photography consultant Paul Worthington is the consumer imaging analyst for the 6Sight Report and an editor for PMA Newsline.