Sony's Robot-Cam: Partying Without a Photographer

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The Sony DS1-TX1 Cyber-shot digital shot using the IPT-DS1 Party-shot personal photographer

Rose captured by robot party camera at an office potluck

American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams once said, "There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer." He didn't say anything about robots. But Adams, who died in 1984, could not have anticipated a new device from Sony designed to replace human shutterbugs by making its own decisions about when to take a photo.

Called the Party-shot, Sony's $150 accessory is a camera dock — not much bigger than a palm-sized paperweight — that enables users to enjoy themselves at gatherings without worrying about who is documenting the event. Attach a compatible camera (sorry, Sony only), and the Party-shot will take over, panning and tilting, zooming in and out, and snapping shots of any people who pause in front of it long enough to be detected.

The Party-shot was released in September without much fanfare, even though it's the first robo-cam on the market aimed at consumers. The obvious question is, have digital cameras, nowadays equipped with a considerable amount of artificial intelligence, come so far that they make human photographers obsolete? We tried out the Party-shot at a recent office potluck, and came away thinking it's less a substitute for a human photographer, and more a supplement.

Mated with Sony's latest Cyber-shot models, either the WX1 or TX1, the dock is certainly less conspicuous than a roving photographer, making only a quiet whirring noise as it sweeps its surroundings for human faces. Most of the photos it takes are focused and properly exposed, even when the flash is off indoors. It frames portraits well (although at middle distances, it tends to cut people off at the waist) and it's not stymied by profiles or multiple faces, as long as nobody's moving. It can easily take 150 photos an hour at the high frequency setting, and the battery lasts more than enough time for most festive occasions.

But the Party-shot suffers the same challenge as speech-recognition software: for people to embrace it, it needs to be able to at least match what people can do. And while the robo-cam took plenty of OK shots, it lacks the sophistication to capture classic Kodak moments. Not that Sony's engineers aren't working on it. Designers realized that posed shots often look forced. So the robo-cam is meant to capture people in natural situations. Unfortunately, that meant the Party-shot took just as many shots of subjects with half-closed eyes and mouths mid-chew as the average photographer.

Nor was its face-recognition software foolproof. The robo-cam was thrown by decoys such as posters of TIME magazine covers, and it had an almost offensive tendency to ignore human subjects with dark skin tones. The WX1 in particular had trouble establishing what Sony refers to as "optimal picture composition," zooming in and out repeatedly on a motionless subject, like a morally divided Peeping Tom. And it can have fickle taste, sometimes snapping 20 shots of one target, sometimes ignoring someone standing right in front of it.

The Party-shot isn't going to send the amateur photographer the way of the switchboard operator. Still, for version 1.0, it is an adequate stand-in at large gatherings, and can come in really handy at small ones, like a family birthday, when nobody wants to be on camera duty. It guarantees that there will be some sort of photo documentation, making it a fairly cheap form of insurance against a lazy or distracted human photographer. It also guarantees, I suspect, a proliferation of even more mediocre photos on Facebook.