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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

November 10, 2014 at 4:49 PM

HTC re-imagines camera – and its device business

This is shaping up to be a fun holiday season, at least from the gadget perspective.

re-front

In addition to the usual phones, computers and games, we have an armful of smartwatches, Amazon.com’s talking speaker tube and a quirky L-shaped camera from HTC.

I’m guessing that the camera, called the RE, will be a surprise hit.

I say surprise for several reasons.

First, people don’t really need another camera since most are carrying phones that take pretty nice pictures nowadays.

But the RE’s unusual design is hard to resist and stands out among look-alike electronics. It also does surprising tricks while extending the photographic capability of a smartphone.

A bigger surprise will be if the RE — and other offbeat devices that a new group in Bellevue is developing for HTC — revive the Taiwanese company’s fortunes.

HTC has long made first-rate phones but it’s been struggling to compete with Apple and Samsung at the upper end of the market, where it’s positioned. Over the past few years its sales and stock price has plunged, leading to internal shake-ups and reorganizations.

HTC’s share of the global smartphone market was just 1.2 percent last quarter, down from about 2 percent a year ago and nearly 5 percent in 2012, according to research firm Strategy Analytics.

There’s been speculation that HTC may fold into a larger company, similar to what happened with the phone businesses of Nokia and Motorola, although the pressure has eased this fall as it returned to profitability and diversified its lineup with the RE and new midrange devices.

Although HTC is a flagship Taiwanese company, with close ties to a prominent industrial family on the island, Seattle has a lot riding on its fate.

HTC’s North American headquarters is in Bellevue — just across Interstate 90 from T-Mobile — and its software design is largely done at a studio in Seattle. Altogether it has about 300 employees in the region.

Bellevue also is the base of an emerging-products team formed last year to push HTC into new markets beyond smartphones.

The group worked on Google’s new Nexus 9 tablet, which went on sale last week, but its first entirely new product is the RE camera, which is expected to go on sale in late November through retailers and phone carriers for $199.

Like another Eastside underdog building new mobile devices, HTC opted to make the RE platform independent, meaning it doesn’t just work with HTC phones. It works with apps for iOS and Android devices.

“It’s a change of direction for us,” said Chad Dial, the Bellevue-based executive director of HTC’s emerging devices group.

In the past, anything HTC developed was meant to work primarily on HTC devices, “But there’s a big market out there, and we want to make sure to get our products into as many people’s hands as possible,” he said.

The RE — the name is supposed to suggest “re-imagining” your camera — can be used as a handheld camera. It turns on when you grip it, and has buttons to capture 16-megapixel stills or 1080p video with its ultra wide-angle, 146-degree lens.

The RE app, at left, and a picture taken with the camera

The RE app, at left, and a picture taken with the camera

It gets more fun when you use the RE as a sort of remote, wireless lens for your phone. You can put the RE across the room or on stage during a recital and use the companion phone app as a viewfinder and shutter button.

Or you can put the camera on a shelf and have it take time-lapse photos throughout an event. The pictures can be stored on the RE’s memory card or the camera, and then sync’d with cloud storage services.

“We like to think this is a natural progression for HTC,” said Nigel Newby-House, HTC’s executive director of product planning. “We’ve always been doing innovation on cameras,”

GoPro makes cameras with similar capabilities, but they’re designed for “adrenaline junkies,” he said, while the RE is lighter and more accessible to average users.

In a few days of casual testing with iOS and Android phones, the RE app was easier to set up and more responsive on a new Android phone than my iPhone 5. The controls were intuitive, but sometimes there was a lag between the app and the RE.

The design, which makes it look like an inhaler or a pipe, feels just right in the hand when you’re pivoting it around to aim or get the right angle. It was a little tricky to hold steady enough and worked best when the camera was stationary.

The base includes a charging port, tripod mount and cover over the memory-card slot.

The base includes a charging port, tripod mount and cover over the memory-card slot.

I’m looking forward to using the RE during a party or an interview to see how it works autonomously, taking time-lapse photos.

Newby-House said part of the inspiration was to let people capture events without being glued to their phones, the way he was during the crucial moments of his daughter’s ninth birthday party.

“I realized I was the idiot standing at the back desperately trying to frame this with my cellphone,” he said. “We want to get people away from that and back into the moment again.”

I’m not yet comfortable enough with the RE to rely on it for an important photo op, but I loved using it as a telescope peering out from my cubicle.

A software update in the works will enable the RE to broadcast live events on YouTube. For instance, you could put the camera on stage during a child’s recital then send links to the grandparents so they could view the event live on YouTube.

The software may also be updated to allow remote control via the Internet, so you could use the RE as a security camera or to check in on a pet or a pot of soup simmering on the stove.

HTC claims about 1.5 hours of battery life when continuously filming, but it’s offering an accessory dock to keep it plugged in.

Phone hardware seems to be reaching a plateau with fewer and fewer options to differentiate themselves, stand out in stores and show off their creativity.

On that count, at least, I’d say the RE is already a success.

Here are the RE specs as provided by HTC:

SIZE: 96.7 x 26.5 mm

WEIGHT: 65.5 grams

Memory

    • 8GB microSD included
    • Expansion card slot supports microSD(tm) memory card for up to 128GB additional storage

SENSORS

    • Grip sensor
    • G-sensor

CONNECTIVITY

    • BLE (Bluetooth® 4.0)
    • Wi-Fi® (802.11 a/b/g/n), Wi-Fi Direct
    • micro-USB
    • ¼” tripod connection

CAMERA

    • 16MP
    • 1/2.3” CMOS sensor
    • Ultra wide angle: 146° lens (f/2.8)
    • 1080p, 30fps FHD video 720p, 4x slow motion video
    • Time-lapse video recording

Audio

    • HD microphone
    • Speaker

Durability

      • IP57 waterproof (IP57 without cap, up to 1 meter for 30 minutes, IP58 with cap, up to 3 meters for 2 hours)

 

Compatability

        • Compatible with Android 4.3 and above (BLE equipped); and iOS 7 or later

BATTERY

      • 820 mAh rechargeable battery (1,200 16MP photos; 1 hour 40 min of continuous FHD video recording
      • AC Adapter

Comments | Topics: Asia, camera, gadgets and products

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