Last summer, Ritz Camera and a few other photo dealers came out with "single use" digital cameras. Ritz calls their model the "Dakota". Trying to emulate the film-based single use cameras, the idea was you'd buy the camera, take pictures until it fills up, and return it to Ritz for "processing". They unload the photos, make prints from them and sell you the prints for more money. The camera is refurbished, repackaged and sold again.
When I first heard of this I wrote it off as a pretty silly way for a traditional film developer to try and hang onto their dwindling photo-finishing business. After all, the big advantage of digital photography is you don't need to make a trip to the mall to get your pictures back, and you don't pay for pictures you don't want. Even a $250 digital camera can pay for it self pretty quickly with savings over buying film, developing and prints.
A couple months ago, Slashdot ran an article describing how to tap into the Dakota "single use" camera so anybody with an ordinary PC could get the pictures out of it and re-use the camera. Being just before Christmas, the light clicked on: they'd make great gifts for our four year old twins. Normally I wouldn't turn kids that young loose with real cameras, but at $11 per camera this wasn't a huge risk. Having taken one apart, I'd estimate from looking at the parts inside that a Dakota would sell for at least $50 if it were a typical consumer electronics item. But I'm more than happy to let Ritz's questionable business model subsidize our kid's Christmas.
Of course, the Dakota doesn't just plug right into your PC and work with standard software. It took some pretty dedicated reverse engineering to figure out how to talk to the camera and write programs to extract pictures from it. The technical details are found at the following sites by the people who did the hardware decoding and software development:
All of these sites have lots technical info about the camera's internals, details on how to wire them up to a standard USB port, and links to additional sites about them. In order to use the Dakota you need an adapter to connect the camera's proprietary connector to a standard USB port. Fortunately I had an old Palm Pilot cradle with a connector that fit the camera perfectly. Rather than tear up a good USB cable, I decided instead to build an adapter to connect a standard USB "B" plug (what you normally connect to your scanner or printer) to the special connector the Dakota uses. For the USB socket, I desoldered the jack off of an old "USB Multiplexer" device. Everything was assembled on a small chunk of perfboard as detailed below:
Most of the wires from the original Palm cradle cable could be used, with a couple extras soldered on.
|The leads on the USB socket are quite short, which made soldering them a bit tedious.|
To protect the wiring I carved the battery door from a discarded toy to fit the back with an Xacto knife, and attached it with double-sided foam tape.
Finished adapter, in use with the camera below.
The one megapixel pictures from the Dakota aren't great, but they aren't terrible either.With a bit of occasional color correction in Photoshop they make decent 4x6 prints. I got an extra camera for my wife to keep in her car, for those moments when something interesting happens and the "real" camera is left at home.
A couple of additional quirks about the cameras: They're only available at the Ritz/Wolf retail stores. Ritz doesn't seem to sell them via the web or phone. My guess this has something to do with getting you back to the store to get your prints "processed". Also, after using the software mentioned above to reset the camera, I've found its necessary to take the batteries out for a minute or two before the flash will work again. I'm not sure why.
So what sorts of pictures do four year olds with new cameras take?
Its funny how many basics of photography - hold the camera still, don't get too close, don't put your thumb in front of the lens, etc - you don't think about until you see the kids use a camera for the first time. There are other lessons too; learning to read the "pictures remaining" display on the back of the camera is a useful lesson in counting and numbers. So far I'd call it a success.
The cameras (some now with LCD picture preview screens) have been updated to a new "PV2" model. Unfortuntely, these have proven less easy to tap into (I guess the camera stores wised up...). For more information, see the pages by Maushammer and CEXX, as well as here. I suspect the "take it back to the store" digital cameras aren't long for this world. "Cheap" cameras with removable memory cards are around $70 or so; when they cost less than $50 the price advantage isn't there. And of course, every phone has a camera in it these days.
Speaking of phones, one idea for a cheap kid's camera is to find an "old" camera phone on eBay that's compatible with BitPIM (to unload the pictures). As the prices fall on eBay, I'd expect camera phones to hit the sub-$25 range. A megapixel camera phone is easily in the same quality league with the Dakota cameras, and has a nice rechargable battery too.