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Flip Ultra camcorder delivers ode to clean design

Posted: 25 Feb 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Flip Ultra camcorder teardown? clean design?

When engineers at Pure Digital Inc. sat down a couple of years back to lay out their next project, they had many of the typical design criteria in mind: low cost, high quality, size, ease of use and low power. However, they also had two other criteria that would in the end set them apart: ease of use and sharability. In a word, just plain fun. For three-year-olds to ninety and over, the Flip Ultra digital camcorder provides exactly that.

With an intuitive eight-button interface, a bright viewing screen, VGA video at 30fps, intuitive controls, a snappy, quick-connect USB interface to computers, embedded software for downloading and viewing and APIs to YouTube, AOL, MySpace and other sites for quick uploads, the camera is both high quality and, as the Wall Street Journal so aptly puts it, "stunningly simple to use."

The camera can store 30min (1Gbyte) or 1hr (2Gbytes) of video and costs $149 or $179, respectively. It outputs 640x480 VGA video (TV quality) and comes with an NTSC TV out cable with analog RCA plugs. Other basic specs include dimensions of 4.17 x 2.16 x 1.25inches, a built-in wide-range microphone, speaker, 2x zoom and advanced profile MPEG 4 AVI support.

Intuitive solution
As any designer knows, in a world of feature creep and functional mazes, making something that's both desirable and easy to use isn't easy, so I asked the team behind the Flip how they did it and they introduced me to their world of high-end industrial and user-interface design, advanced image processing and cutting-edge algorithms and non-linear curves for smooth exposure control.

According to Simon Fleming, the company's head of marketing, the idea for the Flip evolved from the industry's first single-use digital still camera it had introduced in 2002 and the first disposable digital camcorder they introduced in 2004. Those devices had record, playback and delete, but "'Why does it have to be disposable?' we asked ourselves'."

At the time, he said, "video [in general] was still stuck in the pre point-and-shoot days of still cameras," where the systems were so complex that the typical user was the husband or hobbyists. With the advent of point and shoot and 1hr development labs, moms became the volume photographers. Also, according to the consumer electronics industry stats, said Fleming, the market for digital still cameras is 30 million units per year and only 3 to 4 million for digital video cameras. "Video still hasn't been served up in the same way [as point-and-shoot still cameras]."

Finally, the company saw the opportunity for not only capturing but also sharing video via user-generated-content sites like YouTube. "We had to adjust our strategy," he said, and the road to the Flip had begun.

To address the ease of use issue, the designers rallied around a theme: No extra buttons. "The user would always know what each button does," said Fleming. In fact, the team had a goal that within 30s, the user should know how to use it. "It must be intuitive or we won't use it," he said.

For this user, the ramp-up period was almost exactly that: I inserted the batteries, took a few seconds to realize the power button was on the side (there's no On/Off decals), hit the big red record button on the button panel in the rear, and it was off and running. The other six buttons are arranged around the record button and are for zoom in and out, forward and reverse, and play and delete. (Technically speaking, there's two more buttons: one for the flip-out USB interface and one for the sliding battery-compartment release.)

To stop recording, just hit the red button again, but this is where I encountered the only thing I didn't like about the Flip: it's just plain hard to get it to stop recording. You have to push really hard. According to Fleming, this was a trade-off they had to make, as some users were hitting the record/stop function accidentally. Nonetheless, even my 6- and 4-year-old kids took to it right away!and loved it.

Flip Ultra camcorder

The Flip Ultra digital camcorder provides ease of use and sharability.
(Click to view teardown.)

Downloading was snap, just flip open the USB connection, plug it in, and the embedded software takes care of the rest, including providing the APIs needed to upload to YouTube and other video-sharing sites. "We wanted it to be fully self-sufficient," said Fleming, "no extra buttons, no memory card, USB cables, software or disks." Also, non-techie users don't have to know the difference between MPEG 4 and MPEG 3, he added, "it's all done in the background, including transcoding video to a WMV file to email video."

The optics used a fixed focus (0.8m-to-infinity) lens with an f/2.4 shutter rating that provided excellent video in very poor lighting conditions. This was a critical issue for the designers. "We made sure we did video really!really!well," said Fleming. "We spent a lot of time on that, vs. bells and whistles." The same quality applied to the viewing display, which comprises a 1.5-in.-diagonal, 528 x 132pixel transflective TFT LCD.

While the zoom is only 2x (digital), Fleming said any more would cause too much degradation. "Plus, we found people happy to use their feet to zoom."

For the industrial design necessary to package the whole device in a slick and efficient form factor, the company partnered with Smart Design, a consumer products design specialist. They had to balance size, form, aesthetics and how the parts fit together. One issue was the batteries, which were a third of the overall volume. "Smart Design came up with the exterior front plate removal to access the battery compartment," said Fleming, "this kept the sleek design."

But thickness was still an issue, given the depth of the lens. "It's a 2.8cm lens: we could've used a smaller one, but the quality would've gone down," said Fleming. To alleviate that, Smart Design came with the idea of a curved front plate that accommodates the optics' structure, yet still keeps the sides slim.

So, what's inside?
On removing the covers, I was at once disappointed and amazed. The disappointment derives from the gadget-freak in me that loves to see a maze of springs, motors and actuators supported by a rats nest of wires and myriad, complex-looking ICs. That was definitely not the case. In fact, I was amazed that the camera simply comprises the 2.8cm-high lens, two mini connectors (for the USB and button-control interfaces) and a single processing board with the sensor, video processor and two memory ICs.

However, it's the choice of components, and the software that went into them, that gives the Flip Ultra its uniqueness and edge. At the heart of the system is the marriage of a Micron 1/4inch VGA CMOS sensor with a Zoran Coach 8M (ZR36460BGCF) image processor. According to John Furlan, vice president of engineering at Pure Digital, the Micron sensor (MT9V011D00STC) was chosen not just because he believes Micron makes high-quality sensors, but also because it had the right pixel size of 5.6?m square that would give maximum performance across all light ranges, from bright to poor. It also has the necessary frame rate of 30-90fps, programmable gain via a two-wire interface, on-board 10bit ADC a 10bit parallel output.

This output feeds directly into the Zoran processor. It is here where much of Pure Digital's intellectual property resides. According to Furlan, the team chose to go with Zoran as they already had a history of working with the company for its one-time-use cameras. However, they chose the Coach 8 specifically because, "it's very integrated, with a high-quality image-processing pipeline, as well as high-quality image compression!ware, versus DSP!B," said Furlan. In addition, Zoran made the full image-processing pipleline available to Pure Digital so they could perform the configurability they wanted, while still achieving the full 30fps, even in low light.

Fast digital image processing
The frame rate brings up an interesting point and speaks well of the Coach 8's processing power. Typical still cameras take a second or more to process an image, so how does the Flip manage 30 in a second? According to Furlan, as discussed previously, the video resolution is 640x480, which translates to approximately 0.25Mpixels. "So, a camera that can process and store a 4Mpixel image in 1s can process a 0.25Mpixel image in 1/16 of a second." Also, typical digital still cameras can process multiple frames per second. "In the end, it's the speed of the underlying hardware that permits us to process a video frame 30x per second," he said.

Secret sauce? Exposure control algorithms
The configurability of the processor also allowed Furlan's team to implement proprietary algorithms and core intellectual property to overcome one of the main obstacles to smooth digital video: auto exposure control. Careful control of both sensor gain and exposure across the range of scenes with appropriate smoothing is mandatory to ensure the user doesn't see significant changes in exposure on a frame-by-frame basis. This control of exposure, gain and image processing over a range of lighting conditions is a detail that's often overlooked, said Furlan.

Digital still cameras don't have this issue, as it's one exposure, one shot, while more expensive digital camcorders have external sensors and electromechanical light control. But the Pure Digital team had to do this digitally.

The "Eureka" moment came with the development of proprietary damping algorithms to implement a non-linear response curve off stasis to give a smooth 'landing' quickly, without instability in the system. "For slow or little change, we keep the auto exposure stable or make very small changes which cannot easily be discerned by viewers," said Furlan. While the auto exposure has no impact on the underlying video frame rate, it does improve the perception that as the camera moves from one scene to the next, there were no significant jumps in brightness.

The end result is a digital camcorder experience for $150 that rivals that of camcorders in the $500- to $600-range.

The Zoran 8 is supported by two memory chips from Samsung: the K4D551638H moviNAND in 1- or 2Gbyte versions with MMC controller for main storage, and the KMAFN0000M-S998 (728) on the back for buffering.

Next step
Most of the patents for the Flip Ultra revolve around the algorithms, the embedded software concept and the flip-out USB port, said Furlan. For next-generation camcorders, the team plans to work on higher integration, better audio fidelity, an even more camcorder-like feel to the device, better user responsiveness, faster record and playback and reduced system noise.

- Patrick Mannion

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