Monday 27 January 2020

The day camera phones significantly altered my world

He has reviewed and tested more camera phones than probably ­anyone else in Ireland. ­Our technology editor recalls his excitement when he first discovered them

Nokia 7650
Nokia 7650
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

'Oh Jesus Christ! Delete that!"

2002. A bar in Dublin. I had just showed a friend the result of a photo I took with Nokia's latest whizzy gadget, the 7650 camera phone.

The orange, grainy result did not impress her.

"Don't you f***ing email that to anyone," I was warned, finger pointed at me.

She was right: the photo was deeply unflattering. I didn't care, though. I was mesmerised by the technology.

A camera in my phone!

Never mind that it was a mere 0.3 megapixels (roughly 50 times weaker than today's models).

Never mind that it took ages to post or publish it anywhere (mobile networks had no 3G yet and Wi-Fi access was sporadic).

I could take photos with my mobile!

Within weeks, I started a blog. It documented what I saw every day. At first it was a diary. Then I started to include work-related stuff in it.

(Years later, a service called 'Twitter' would replace this.)

I wasn't alone. Hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland started buying camera phones and sharing their pictures.

Before long, they were posting photos on new internet sites such as MySpace and Bebo. Then they started recording videos with their phones and putting them on YouTube. Then Facebook came along. Then Instagram. Then Snapchat.

I dove in with them, head first, at every step.

Like many people, camera phones significantly altered my world. In Ireland, it remains deeply unfashionable to admit that this change has almost entirely been for the better.

The benefits were apparent to me from day one. Dull stretches of any day could now be made more interesting by finding an interesting or amusing photo around me. Better still, I could text or email a photo to a friend. In time, I could post them directly online from the phone to a community I felt an affinity with.

I didn't have to pout or pose. I didn't care about elderly radio pundits telling me that I was 'tragic' or somehow not engaging in 'real life'.

Camera phones were just fun. I always had something on hand to record a special moment with family or friends. Sure, some tutted or rolled their eyes when I was doing it. But 15 years later, they are more likely to ask to see those photos than to slag me over taking them. It reminds them of things, of moments, they had forgotten about.

As with any new technology, a degree of moral hysteria dogged the introduction of camera phones.

Newspapers and radio stations took the lead, drumming up terrifying stories about a new age of evil to come upon us. Predatory photos of children 100 yards away on some beach would be now be a daily occurrence, threatening society.

The climate became even more febrile when mobile 3G data networks arrived en masse for Irish phone users in 2004. Led on by torchlit media mobs, parents' associations demanded action. The then Minister for Communications, Dermot Ahern, was forced into announcing a "national register" for anyone who wanted to own a 3G camera phone.

As is almost always the case, the moral panic abated. No register was ever set up and, as people got the enhanced camera phones into their hands, the atmosphere calmed down.

Today, I still use camera phones almost every day. This is partially down to my job, which happens to include reviewing them.

Without exaggeration, I can probably claim to have tested and used more camera phones than almost any other Irish person. I've been there through Motorolas, Siemens, Alcatels, Nokias, Samsungs, Sonys, HTCs, Huaweis and more, right up to the dual-lens iPhone 7 Plus currently in my pocket.

These gadgets have reached an astonishing level of ability, given the physical restrictions that flat phones face as they seek to gather and process light through a lens.

For example, in one phone I'm currently testing, Sony's XZ Premium, I can record slow-motion video at 960 frames per second. That lets me slow down the flapping of a bird's wings or identify droplets from a fountain.

Other phones I regularly use, such as Huawei's P10 and Apple's iPhone 7 Plus, let me take professional-looking portrait photos of people, complete with the requisite blurry backgrounds. The creativity these kinds of advances facilitate are every bit as exciting to me as the feeling I had when I saw the first blurry images from my Nokia 7650 (inset) phone back in 2002.

We frown at teenagers who constantly take selfies and send them to friends. But while vanity and narcissism is always a risk, there is more to be appreciated than tutted at.

The phones in our pockets are now amazing, life-enhancing tools. They allow me to be a witness to things I could never access before, and serve as a witness for others.

I can't wait to see where the next generation brings me.

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