Over the past three years, while his fellow commuters jostled for space or scanned the morning paper, Yamada, 55, devoted his four-hour daily commute to a higher cause--dreaming up the next great consumer gadget. In 1997 Ricoh president Masamitsu Sakurai commissioned Yamada to create a device that would help catapult his company, which had built its fortunes on heavy office machines, into the forefront of digital technology. The trouble was, Sakurai didn't really know what he wanted. "The idea was to develop a product that uses all our senses," says Yamada. "There was no paper, no specifications. Just his wish, his hope."
After reviewing the most promising new technologies--and meditating endlessly on the train--Yamada felt he was prepared to design a digital camera like no other. The fruit of his cogitations is about the size of a videocassette and weighs in at just over a pound. But the genius of the RDC-i700 camera is revealed as its top flips up to display a bright, 3.5-in. touch-sensitive screen--a window on the World Wide Web that surfs the Internet, records voice memos, accepts scribbled notes and drawings in 16 different colors and receives and sends e-mail.
In many respects, such features are not new this year. What makes the i700 an invention is its wireless Web-publishing capabilities. Ricoh engineers wrote custom software that resides inside the camera and allows users to correlate images with specific Web pages, then transmit them to a live website of their choice. Not only can you send photos from the road, you can also automatically display them exactly where you want them to appear on your website.
"We created the first camera that allows HTML coding, which can be sent to a Web page and instantly published," says the camera's U.S. marketing manager, Jeff Lengyel. After the photographer takes pictures, which can be shot at a resolution of 3.34 megapixels or less, she selects the snaps she wants to upload to her personal website. Users in Japan--where the product was released in September at about $1,500--can transmit images with a tiny wireless modem that slides into a slot on the camera. Ricoh expects similar wireless cards to be available in time for the i700's U.S. release early next year.
In our own tests, TIME's editors were able to upload a low-resolution image to a website in about a minute simply by selecting the desired image onscreen, then hitting a few more buttons to send it through the ether. Skeptical at first about browsing the Web on a screen the size of a drink coaster, we were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was both to enter Web addresses and write e-mail with the slim gray plastic stylus included with the camera.
"The RDC-i700 is an innovative device," notes Christopher Chute, analyst at the high-tech market-research firm International Data Corp. "For the first time, a camera manufacturer has attempted to offer an all-in-one solution for digital-image capture, transmission and display and storage." Such an invention opens up all sorts of possibilities. Cross-country travelers could wirelessly update their home pages on the road with pictures from their trip. Guests at a family reunion or wedding could post images online just minutes after snapping them, so everyone who couldn't attend could see the action as it unfolded. Relocating couples could split their house- or apartment-hunting chores and keep each other up to date on their efforts: find something you like, snap a few pictures and let your spouse log on at the office or at home to see what you've discovered.
Because of the i700's relatively high price (competing digital cameras with the same resolution sell for as little as $800), Ricoh expects its first U.S. customers to be business users, such as real estate agents making Web pages for new listings or news organizations posting photos of fast-breaking stories from the field. In Japan, the government-contracted information service Hokuriku Kensetsu Kosaikai uses the cameras to collect pictures from scenes of natural disasters to help repair workers and rescue teams prepare for the task ahead of them. "We used to use a PC, but not all the workers at a disaster scene are familiar with computers," says the service's manager, Hirokazu Kimura. "[The i700] is very useful for us."
Leader of the Pack
While Ricoh was first to market with a Web-enabled digital camera, the competition is coming on strong. Two California software companies, FlashPoint and ActivePhoto, are working to make Web-coding capabilities standard features on the internal operating systems of digital cameras. The companies have begun testing wireless solutions with insurance companies and Web auction houses. By next year, Internet-ready SprintPCS phones will be able to hook up to a Kodak DC290 digital camera and send pictures to a Sprint website. Polaroid is developing a $350 digital camera with a built-in modem for release next spring. The first version will require a regular phone-line connection, but future versions could be wireless.