Crazy Rumor Specifications

We've always had the problem of new product rumors predicting features and performance far in front of what is likely to be actually produced. Customers' imaginations get all wrapped up in speculation based upon things they hear out of the R&D world. 

Pretty much every savvy product management team in tech is living at least five years forward of today, and they dip as far forward as ten years. What they're trying to do is predict what a technology that is likely to make it out of the R in R&D will be capable of doing in a customer-facing product, and when it will move from R to D. Apple is incredibly good at that, but so are quite a few other companies, including several in the camera market.

Every now and then, we get major forward pushes with tech, and those rumored specifications about a coming product actually turn out to be somewhat, if not fully, true. We're in one of those periods right now, actually, as it relates to image sensors. 

The basic "capture photons and convert accurately to charge" thing reached a peak in recent years and will need a technology breakthrough not yet available in order to improve. That led to two things: more investigation of alternatives to the conventional sensor structures, and a push of research into other as yet unsolved problems. One of those unsolved problems was bandwidth. That shows up as lack of global shutter and inability to pull huge amounts of data off the sensor quickly (needed for things like 4K 120P or 60mp+ at reasonable frame rates).

It's that latter thing that's been going from R to D lately: bandwidth improvement. You see it in the Sony Alpha A1, but you see it even in cameras like the Canon R5 and R6. You're going to see it even more evident in coming months.

Thus, when a rumor appeared about the Canon R1 being 85mp, global shutter, and 20 fps, I didn't immediately dismiss it as did many others. To do that would probably require smaller process size—Nikon just demonstrated 65nm process in a sophisticated sensor with high bandwidth—and a stacked sensor design (also something Nikon just demonstrated, and which Sony has done on the A9 and A1 models). 

Where the Canon R1 rumored specs don't quite line up is in another area: global shutter and quad pixel PD being able to generate 15.5 stops of dynamic range. Even expressed as engineering DR (signal to noise ratio of 1:1 to saturation) I find that a little difficult to believe for a global shutter where every pixel is playing two roles. But it's not out of the question. Nikon's recently announced 1" stacked sensor project shows one possible solution.

I've written for a long time that "more sampling is better, all else equal." Well, if you're going to standardize on a full frame sensor and have essentially a 100% fill factor, quantum shot noise is going to be the same on a 45mp sensor as it is on a 20mp sensor (assuming equal size output). We'd all rather have the 45mp sensor if "all else is equal." (At least we should all want that ;~). Thus, we're about to get top-end pro speed cameras that jump well up from the 20mp they've been at (1DX Mark III, D6). 

Therefore, the A1 being 50mp wasn't a surprise, and I've written that I believe that Nikon's D6-like mirrorless camera will be 45mp (or 47.4mp in Nikon-speak). Canon going to 85mp with the R1 would be a push beyond what the others are doing, but still in the realm of possible. Indeed, for an R1 to stand out from the existing R5 it's going to have to have "something extra."

The reason that we get these breakthroughs in very expensive cameras is simple: you need to pay for the D side of R&D. The thing about silicon is that once you can figure out how to actually produce it, producing another one is cheaper, and each additional one you produce gets cheaper (the old Texas Instruments chart that caught everyone's attention and led to the semiconductor revolution). The R side of R&D is an investment and less expensive than most think. It's that D side that is most costly and which needs to be recovered in product costs. Thus, making an expensive product with a large gross profit margin is where you deploy first. Then as production pricing comes down, you can consider bringing it to the lower products. 

As much as the common Internet myth at the moment is that all the Japanese camera companies are failing and will simply fade out of sight soon, the truth is almost the opposite. Pretty much all of them have doubled down on research, they're getting more aggressive about moving things to development, and the result is (and is going to continue to be) some exceptional products that just blow the socks off the old Nikon D1. And D2. And D3. And D4. And so on. 

Ultimately, the size of the remaining buying market will determine the cost of those products at retail. I've written before that I think the bottom of the market can't be less than 4m ILC units a year without there being casualties, but all signs currently point to 5m units being the bottom that was actually hit. Every camera company will be eager to see if they can push the volume back to 6m units or higher, as there's meaningful profit to be had at that point.

So, when new product rumors hit that seem at first like they are "out of bounds", I'm a little less likely to make that conclusion these days. What I'm hearing, and what I'm seeing, is that all the concurrent problems—smartphones, margin erosion, pandemic, supply chain, etc.—have the Japanese camera companies fully re-energized and working to tackle really tough problems. 

I'll put that into specific terms. While the Internet still is predicting the demise of the former Olympus Imaging group, I'm not at all worried about OM Digital Solutions R&D, or their development, engineering, and manufacturing of new products. My worry about the new entity is how well they'll manage sales and marketing, and particularly so given how much the Japanese home market was the primary outlet for the Olympus product. I'm not sure that OM Digital Solutions can survive with just a Japanese sales and marketing thrust, the volume is just too low to stay fully competitive, and the Japanese consumer market is not as robust as other markets. Thus, I've been paying attention to how OM Digital Solutions is working in the US, Europe, and other markets. So far, so good, but it's unclear how much of that is being driven by the new company rather than the vestiges of the old. 

Is the "crazy Canon R1 specs" just a pipe dream? Yes in the sense that we'd all like to get there, even the Canon engineers ;~). No in the sense that those specifications are the edge of what's likely possible at the moment given all the R&D that's being done in the very areas where that rumor says Canon is pushing. 

Time will tell which is right. The most likely thing is that some of the future R1 specifications are indeed correct guesses by someone,, but not likely all of them. 

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