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The Verge 2016 tech report cards: Cameras and gadgets

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Cameras

Two things immediately struck me when I walked onto the show floor at this year’s Photo Plus Expo. Nikon’s booth was all about the company’s new line of action cameras, including the one that shoots 360-degree photos and videos. Just across the way, Canon’s booth was covered in imagery of the M5, the company’s most serious attempt at making a mirrorless camera. These two companies put out fantastic flagship DSLRs in 2016 — Nikon with the D5, Canon with the 5D Mark IV — and yet here they were, showing off cameras that were decidedly not their moneymakers.

Facebook and YouTube stepped up support for spherical content in a big way

2016 wasn’t a revolutionary year for cameras, but there were signs of big changes on the horizon. The Nikon D500 showed us that there’s a better way to mix Bluetooth and Wi-Fi with Snapbridge, setting a shining example of how cameras are going to connect to our smartphones in the near future. Sony released the A6500 and the RX100 Mark V, cameras that are capable of shooting at such ludicrous speeds that they have the potential to change the way we fundamentally approach photography. Snap pivoted to being a “camera company” and released Spectacles, compelling camera glasses that are easy to use even if you don’t use Snapchat.

We also saw the release of the first reasonable 360-degree cameras for consumers. I don’t think anyone’s sure about the best places and times to use them, or when and how people want to watch 360-degree video. But Facebook and YouTube stepped up support for spherical content in a big way this year, and it looks like it could be a great bridge to virtual reality while we wait for that tech to get better, cheaper, and more accessible. In the VR space, this was the year we started to see the fruits of funky camera maker Lytro’s 2015 pivot into the space. The Lytro Cinema camera is the kind of tool that could push studios to rethink entire visual effects workflows, and Lytro’s impressive Immerge virtual reality camera made its way into the hands of filmmakers for the first time.

Pixel phone

And then there’s our smartphones, where cameras continue to get better. Google took a computational approach to photography with the Pixel phones, and found a way to make them better than the competition in low light. Apple went in the other direction and added more hardware to the iPhone 7 Plus in the form of a second camera unit. These kinds of advances are helping bridge the gap between phones and “real” cameras in ways that many people never thought were possible.

Photography has never been more accessible

Photography has never been more accessible, and there has never been more ways to approach it. As a result, more people are taking more photos, and we also have more choices of where and how to share those images and videos. All of that is important for preserving memories, but it's also important for documenting the things — good and bad — that happen around us. — Sean O’Kane

Verge 2016 Report Card: Cameras

B

2016 Grade

Gold Stars:

  • So many new ways to shoot photos and videos
  • Faster cameras and phones
  • Some great ideas that carry the industry forward in the coming years

Needs Improvement:

  • The biggest companies need to push innovation harder, not just iterate
  • More solutions for storing and sorting through photo files

Gadgets

The New York Times pronounced gadgets dead this year following Fitbit’s acquisition of Pebble, and the failure of other companies, like GoPro, to increase profit year-over-year. I later argued that, actually, they’re very much alive — just look at all the gadgets we want on Circuit Breaker. Smartphones can’t do everything.

Three words best represent gadgets in 2016: copycats, batteries, and hype

We’ve seen new smartphones this year, but we’ve also witnessed a renaissance in Wi-Fi routers, a legion of crowdfunded gear, as well as big companies, like Google and Snap, refocusing on hardware. But overall, three words best represent gadgets in 2016: copycats, batteries, and hype.

The first: copycats. While I wouldn’t call 2016 the Year of the Crowdfunded Gadget, this year exposed crowdfunding’s inherent weaknesses. Gadgets proliferated in 2016 because anyone can throw a sensor in a device and call it “smart,” but gadget makers are hampering each other’s work by copying ideas and making products cheaper. There’s a great Quartz piece on this idea. Essentially, gadget makers who go to China to make their dream product often later find their exact device on the market before their crowdfunding campaign is even online. Gadgets exist but it’s becoming harder to make a living off selling them.

The other two storylines — batteries and hype — stem from arguably the two biggest stories of 2016: the Samsung Note 7 recall and Snap’s launch of Spectacles. The noteworthiness of these two gadgets varies greatly, but they both speak to larger trends. So let’s talk batteries. Oy, batteries. Where do we start?

Seriously, what’s up with batteries this year?

Samsung’s Note 7 overheated and burned users, forcing the company to issue a recall. Second generation Boosted Boards’ batteries started smoking, which forced Boosted to recall the electric skateboards. GoPro’s Karma drones lost power during operation, forcing the company to recall them. Apple, you guess it, recalled certain iPhones 6S devices after they began unexpectedly shutting down, apparently due to batteries being exposed to “controlled ambient air.” Seriously, what’s up with batteries this year? Is it possible that in a quest for more power and longer life, gadget makers have neglected to go through proper safety testing? Or are we just at a tough point in batteries’ development and ultimately need a battery breakthrough?

Let’s move on to Spectacles. They might prove to be a blip on the grander gadget timeline, but for a brief while Spectacles took over entire cities and sent enterprising people out in search of a pair of $130 glasses equipped with a camera. They sold for high markups online. I know someone who waited 10 hours for a pair. Whether this demand was real remains to be seen. I definitely believe only people in the media, YouTube stars, and social media celebs bought the glasses, not regular humans.

2016 showed me that gadgets will live on

While I’ve focused on some negatives of gadgets this year, that doesn’t mean there’s reason to lose hope. 2016 showed me that gadgets will live on, especially to fill voids left behind by smartphones. Remember: weed gadgets are coming. So are art gadgets. And robots, maybe! 2017 is going to be great. — Ashley Carman

Verge 2016 Report Card: Gadgets

B- 2016 Grade

Gold Stars:

  • There were a lot of gadgets!
  • Hype showed us people are still willing to buy gadgets
  • Routers are back?

Needs Improvement:

  • Batteries, man
  • Let's be original, though I do love a deal
  • Pebble got acquired
  • RIP headphone jack and ports

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A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.


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