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The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame: Epson R-D1

This odd hybrid camera had a mechanical shutter and a 6.1-megapixel image sensor

3 min read
Photo: Epson
Surprising Pioneer: The very first digital rangefinder camera came not from Leica, a company long renowned for its rangefinders, but from a collaboration between Epson and camera maker Cosina Voigtländer.
Photo: Epson

Starting in the 1940s and for the next 30 years or so, rangefinder cameras were de rigueur for those who wanted professional-looking photographs. But in the 1970s, single-lens reflex cameras were introduced, later followed by digital SLRs, which made it easy for even the most unskilled amateurs to consistently take decent photos. As digital SLRs soared in popularity, rangefinders became curios—mainly suitable, it seemed, for occasional use by professionals and serious hobbyists. Then Epson introduced the R-D1, the first digital rangefinder, which single-handedly returned rangefinders to combined commercial and artistic relevance.

Rangefinder cameras use two optical paths—one through the lens, one through a separate rangefinder—to get two slightly different angles on the same view, which are then superimposed. The photographer turns the lens focus ring, and when the two images align, the object is in focus.

SLRs, on the other hand, use mirrors and prisms to project an image coming through the lens onto a viewfinder, thereby allowing the user to focus it. When the shutter-release button is pressed, the main mirror is physically flipped up and out of the pathway between lens and film (or image sensor). Because the images that photographers see in their viewfinders come through the lens, what they see is what they get. For that reason, the arrangement lends itself well to a system in which the lenses can be changed. By the end of the 1970s, SLRs were outselling rangefinders by a big margin.

photoSilent Sharpshooter: Compact and quiet, rangefinders are particularly prized by street photographers.Photo: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

And yet rangefinders never quite went away. Lacking a mirror and associated hardware, they tend to be more compact and quieter. The absence of a mirror also means the lens can be closer to the film or sensor, which can translate into sharper images. There’s a reason why Leica still makes rangefinder cameras, and why people are willing to pay US $8,000 for one (lens not included).

Nevertheless, few anticipated the introduction, in 2004, of a digital rangefinder camera codeveloped by Epson and camera maker Cosina Voigtländer, which, like Leica, was known for its rangefinders (the company stopped making cameras in 2015). The R-D1 was the first digital rangefinder camera, beating Leica’s debut entry, the M8, by more than two years. It had a 1:1 viewfinder, allowing photographers to view entire scenes through the camera as if with the naked eye. And with a suggested retail price of $3,000, it was aimed at pro photographers and amateurs of means.

Epson delivered this technological innovation with a distinctly retro design. Post 1980, part of the attraction of rangefinders was snob appeal. Many rangefinder users then, and now, eschewed autofocus and autoexposure, preferring old-style manual control.

photoOld and New: The R-D1 had an APS-C format image sensor and a 2-inch view screen on the back. The lever on top (at right) looks exactly like a film-advance lever, but it actually cocked the shutter—which was mechanical.Photo: Epson

The R-D1 was a compelling hybrid of old and new. It looked and more or less behaved like a classic 35-mm rangefinder from the ’60s or ’70s, albeit with many advanced digital features, notably a 6.1-megapixel APS-C-format CCD imager from Sony. Some photographers could use it with many, if not most, of the lenses they had already accumulated; it was the first digital camera that used the M-mount, a standard for high-end optics developed by Leica in 1954 and used by Leica, Voigtländer, and half a dozen other camera makers.

The company even included what looked like a film-winding lever, just like old rangefinders had but seemingly unnecessary, as digital cameras have no film. What it actually did was cock the mechanical shutter—yes, the shutter was mechanical. This feature delighted more than a few enthusiasts already nostalgic for the fast-fading world of film cameras.

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Video Friday: Humanoid Soccer

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

4 min read
Humans and human-size humanoid robots stand together on an indoor soccer field at the beginning of a game

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

CoRL 2022: 14–18 December 2022, AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND
ICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDON

Enjoy today’s videos!

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Computing With Chemicals Makes Faster, Leaner AI

Battery-inspired artificial synapses are gaining ground

5 min read
Array of devices on a chip

This analog electrochemical memory (ECRAM) array provides a prototype for artificial synapses in AI training.

IBM research

How far away could an artificial brain be? Perhaps a very long way off still, but a working analogue to the essential element of the brain’s networks, the synapse, appears closer at hand now.

That’s because a device that draws inspiration from batteries now appears surprisingly well suited to run artificial neural networks. Called electrochemical RAM (ECRAM), it is giving traditional transistor-based AI an unexpected run for its money—and is quickly moving toward the head of the pack in the race to develop the perfect artificial synapse. Researchers recently reported a string of advances at this week’s IEEE International Electron Device Meeting (IEDM 2022) and elsewhere, including ECRAM devices that use less energy, hold memory longer, and take up less space.

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Get the Rohde & Schwarz EMI White Paper

Learn how to measure and reduce common mode electromagnetic interference (EMI) in electric drive installations

1 min read
Rohde & Schwarz

Nowadays, electric machines are often driven by power electronic converters. Even though the use of converters brings with it a variety of advantages, common mode (CM) signals are a frequent problem in many installations. Common mode voltages induced by the converter drive common mode currents damage the motor bearings over time and significantly reduce the lifetime of the drive.

Download this free whitepaper now!

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