Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Two more technologies bite the dust

Every year, new technologies are introduced. What we don’t often hear about are technologies that are retired.

Two very different technologies were retired in 2008.

First, paper music rolls for player pianos. The last manufacturer of paper music rolls for player pianos ceased production at the end of 2008.

I only vaguely recall one of my relatives having a player piano that used these paper rolls to play music. The piano was a pump version where someone had to sit on the piano bench and alternately pump two pedals on the floor, not unlike riding a bicycle.

If you’re not familiar with a player piano, it looked like a regular piano, but where the music sits, wooden slats would open up to reveal an area where a scroll of paper could be inserted. The scroll was about 12- to 14-inches wide and had holes in it. As the paper would move from one spool to another, holes in the paper would move across jets of air. If the jets of air found an opening, the key associate with the jet would play.

Somehow, pumping the pedals provided both the mechanical motion to the piano keys and generated enough air to activate the jets of air.

A recent news report about QRS Music Technologies in Buffalo, N.Y., ceasing production of paper music rolls has caused quite a stir in some circles. Apparently QRS had been producing paper music rolls for 108 years.

Player pianos moved to the digital age years ago and the newer technologies provides a more robust and accurate representation of the pianist.

The second technology to bite the dust was Polaroid film. Yes, the film that many of us grew up with making instant pictures is going away.

The film technology developed by Edwin Land (hence the Polaroid Land name) gave us instant photos wherever we were, without having to send the photos to a lab for processing.

The original photos had a peel-off part and a special coating that had to be applied to preserve the photos. This was later replaced by the SX-70 film, which only had one part that ejected from the camera.

Polaroid film was a boon to travelers who wished to leave photos with friends they met. It also became very popular at parties and other events where having an immediate photo was desirable. Professional photographers used the Polaroid film to check lighting, composition and exposure before committing their image to film.

Digital photography has changed the entire photographic landscape.

While the ability to make instant prints is still a bit of a challenge, it’s very possible to do so now with other techniques besides the Polaroid method. A digital camera, a computer and a color printer will do the same thing. In fact, a number of printers eliminate the computer component and will make prints by talking directly with a camera.

Not to let the entire instant photo business go away, Polaroid introduced a camera/printer combination that lets people make instant prints. The product was unveiled last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The other reasons for people to use Polaroid film have pretty much gone away. Every digital camera now has a screen on the back that lets the user see what the image looks like immediately after the photo is taken. E-mail now allows people to send digital photos to each other, even if they’re around the world. And if the recipient wants to have a print of the photo, he or she can make it themselves.

So, while the passing of both paper player piano rolls and Polaroid film is sad, I can’t say they will be terribly missed. It is mostly nostalgia on my part.

These items will be yet another technology that my children will ask me about when we’re watching a movie; or something I’ll be able to say: “I remember when I was a kid and cameras used to spit out a print that we used to watch develop in front of our eyes.”

I’m sure they’ll respond the way I used to with my parents: “I’m glad I didn’t grow up in the olden days.”

This was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 28 January 2009.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Photo Books That Wow

When film was what people used in cameras, I was a slide guy. My wife was a print gal. I think she was right.

Taking pictures is one thing. Making them available to people to see is quite something different. The bottom line is that prints are easier to view. No technology required. Just open a book and look at the photos.

With the advent of digital photography and the ability to make extraordinary color prints at home – plus the absence of “film” that eliminates the slides versus prints dilemma – I’ve become a strong advocate of prints.

But another dilemma remains: How to present one’s favorite photos to people who want to see them?

For years, we’ve used the photo books that have typically a hundred or so plastic sleeves into which 4x6” photos slide. People can then flip through them and see our favorite photos.

I recently had an opportunity to try out two of the online photo book sites: MyPublisher.com and Blurb.com.

Before I get into each company, what they do that’s similar is offer you free downloadable software (making photo books is not yet something that’s ready for a full Web-based implementation), import and layout your books and then upload the completed file. About a week later, a beautifully printed and bound, full-color book arrives in the mail.

These books are remarkable for a number of reasons:

First, they’re beautiful. The printing quality is very high. Color reproduction is very good, especially in the skin tones.

Second, they’re professionally bound, so they look just as nice as any photo book you’d purchase at Barnes & Noble or other bookstore.

Third, they’re affordable. While the prices vary based on the number of printed pages, the size of the book, and the type of binding you request, the books I created were between $50 and $70 each. Certainly not cheap, but considering that I wanted a press run of one, this is hard to beat.

I spoke with Eileen Gittins the president of blurb.com. She described how blurb.com has positioned itself as not only a book publisher, but a method for authors and artists to create and sell their books online. Indeed, blurb.com has an entire eCommerce section to allow customers to create books and sell them online, while blurb.com fills the orders.

In speaking with Katherine Lewis, the president of MyPublisher.com, she indicated that she’s positioned her company as a service to the “family memorykeeper.” MyPublisher.com is marketed to the home audience.

Both companies offer downloadable software to layout your books. Software is available for both Windows and Macintosh. Each offers a variety of page templates and formats. Typical styles are weddings, vacations, and special events, such as graduations. Each application lets you add text to most pages for captioning the photos. While some books are intended more as books with supporting photos rather than photo books with text, there are layouts that emphasize text over photos.

Having tried both company’s software application, I can’t say I favor one over another. Both worked as advertised and were simple enough to use.

What surprised me was how much time it took to create each book. This was not a function of the software as much as it was a function of me selecting the best images, organizing them appropriately, determining which layout to put on a page, adding the needed text, and then reviewing the completed book. The results were worth it.

What I did find was that neither software application let me do basic image editing such as lighten/darken, increase/decrease contrast, red-eye removal, or rotate an image. This is typically better performed in a photo editing application such as Photoshop, but having these features in the layout application would be beneficial.

The result of my testing was that I ended up making multiple copies of one of the books and sending it to some of my family members. The books were very well received. I am considering sending out copies of the other book, too.

Perhaps the best part is that my wife, who loves pictures of our family, was thrilled with the books and we now have them proudly in our living room for guests to see.

So, what started out as an idea for a column has turned into a wonderful new way for my family to keep and share our photos with our friends. I won’t be making photo books of all of our events, but I can guarantee I’ll be doing more of these books in the future.

Originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 14 January 2009.