September 07, 2004

PMA Photo Kiosk Scores

Photo Kiosk Shoot-Out

By: Wallace Jackson

I recently attended the DIMA (Digital Imaging Marketing Association) tradeshow at the Las Vegas Convention Center on the 11th and the 12th of Februart to cover the 1st Annual Digital Photo Kiosk Shoot-Out 2004, sponsored by DIMA. The DIMA tradeshow consisted largely of seminars on digital imaging and related topics, and featured no exhibit hall, possibly because it's "sister" PMA tradeshow was hosted in the adjacent South Hall, and took place on February 13th through 16th.

PMA is the Photo Marketing Association International (PMAI) tradeshow, and featured almost a thousand exhibitors in two huge convention halls covering both digital and analog (i.e. old-fashioned but bullet-proof) printers, cameras, tripods, accessories, carrying bags, paper stock, blank media, optical products such as telescopes and binoculars, commercial and industrial printing and cutting machinery, photo kiosks and other printing-related products.

For the Digital Photo Kiosk Shoot-Out, DIMA had out-fitted a large ballroom with digital imaging products that had been entered into several product "shoot-outs." During the two day DIMA tradeshow, knowledgeable industry judges compared Digital Photo Kiosk designs, features, output quality and overall performance. The center of the shoot-out ballroom was dedicated solely to the digital photo kiosks, as they were quite large in many instances. The ends of the ballroom featured the other product shoot-outs, such as the digital printers and digital cameras, the results of which will not be covered in this article.

There were three main classifications of these digital photo-imaging "stations" present at the shoot-out, in categories that were defined by the DIMA. Stand-Alone units had the printing hardware inside the kiosk, so they were truly "stand-alone" units, and also tended to be much larger in size. Remote digital photo kiosks, or workstations, did not have print output local to their hardware, and were connected to remote digital photo lab equipment via LAN or wireless networking. The third main classification was a Hybrid or Combination kiosk that had both a local printing ability as well as the ability to print to a remote digital photo mini-lab.

There were 20 entries in this year's competition, with judging provided by photo imaging industry members, including Chris Zimmerman of, Francie Mendelsohn of Summit Research Associates and Gary Pageau of Photo Marketing Association International. Judges looked at a variety of criteria for each kiosk including print quality, speed, user friendliness, ergonomics, features, number of steps to trigger the print function, overall user experience, and a specification sheet rating.

I observed two main "size groupings" of digital photo kiosks at the shoot-out. What I term the "tabletop" models were essentially "all-in-one" Micro-ATX form factor PCs, each with a unique case design, LCD display, and all the standard memory card readers mounted in a single 3.5" or 5.25" external drive bay. These compact digital imaging stations could be placed on any store countertop, for instance, or even on a bar counter with little difficulty, but would not normally be what the public would define as a "kiosk," as they had no real construction encapsulating the components seamlessly (rather, they looked much like a stylized PC and LCD). These were the units defined by the DIMA as "Remote," as they print remotely from a nearby digital photo mini-lab.

One might ask: Is there an Achilles Heel to the compact tabletop units? Many of these tabletop units had remote printers, due to their smaller size and footprint. It seemed as though this was generally the main photo kiosk trade-off at the shoot-out; larger sized units had printers internal to the unit, and smaller sized units had remote printers, accessed via LAN or wireless technology.

The other main size category of the photo-imaging stations at the shoot-out were the large, freestanding kiosks, each of which featured it's own unique design, complete with an exterior metal or plastic construction, seamless encapsulation of the display screen, memory card readers, keyboard (or a touch screen), credit card swiping hardware, one or more color printers, photo quality paper and ink stock. Most of these all-in-one-unit photo kiosk designs featured a way to alert the owner when paper and ink stocks were running low, and other than that "care and feeding" aspect, these photo kiosks just sit quietly and make money printing digital imagery.

There's no telling where these digital photo processing workstations will pop-up around the world, since they are generally fairly compact, and the good news is that they leave loads of room for entrepreneurs everywhere to get in on the automated digital photo image processing revenue stream. I could see the larger stand-alone kiosks popping up in hotel lobbies, office buildings, airports, train depots, shopping malls, department stores, grocery stores, hospitals, stadiums, with the smaller "Remote" units installed in motels, apartment building and condominium common areas, libraries, gyms, health spas, gas stations, restaurants, bars, mini-malls, clothing stores, liquor stores, schools, universities, government buildings, and so on.

It was refreshing to see the plethora of different designs in all three genres of digital photo imaging stations at DIMA, as none of the players in this marketplace seem to be copying what the other ones are doing. This is because there is plenty of room to get creative in this "digital economy" where digital hardware such as card readers, cameras, plasmas, touchscreens, trackballs, 3D audio and digital video are now so affordable, especially at the wholesale level. Interface the software with the hardware API, and companies can control the external hardware interactively. Add software imaging technologies such as sharpening, cropping, resizing and the like, and you have a powerful public digital imaging station. Extended features like these will be emerging during 2004 in the form of innovative new photo kiosk hardware and software, and with so many different digital devices available and affordable, digital photo kiosk models and creative feature-sets are likely to continue to proliferate ferociously for some time to come. What is an example of a "creative" feature? Kodak allows it's users to create greeting cards using templates and their own digital imagery.

One area all of the Stand-Alone photo-imaging stations seem to compete in is the internal printer technology, although this is somewhat logical, due to the fact that many of the photo-image printer hardware manufacturers are also players in this photo kiosk marketplace. Polaroid's gigantic photo kiosk features their patented OPAL dry ink thermal transfer printing technology, which uses only CMY inks, and a lot of impressive technology to produce black tones in digital images without using any black inks. The Polaroid kiosk design was also very modern, with a brushed steel exterior and thick Plexiglas countertop (see the photos taken with Concord's new 4MP digital camera) and an impressive capacity of 2,500 4 by 6 inch prints. Mitsubishi also makes photo imaging printers, and Kodak is a huge player in the digital imaging marketplace as well, and a major consumer digital camera manufacturer.

Speaking of digital camera format support, most of the shoot-out entries supported all four main types of digital memory card ports: Matsushita's SD Card (this slot/port also reads MMC), Fuji's tiny new XD Card, Sony's Memory Stick, and the CFA's CF Card (CFA is Compact Flash Association). Thanks to the hardware manufacturers that make the all-in-one front-bay-mountable digital card reader units, even with five competing memory card standards (SD, XD, MMC, CF and Memory Stick), consumers are consistently able to deposit their digital image data into these digital photo kiosks for digital printing.

But what about digital image pre-processing, you might wonder? Some of the larger players in this field are currently researching some sort of global photo image processing options that may be passed through to consumers in future graphical user interfaces, but we all know that nothing can replace hand-optimizing a digital image using powerful software such as Adobe Photoshop, for instance. Fortunately, this can also be accomplished on the consumer side, thanks again to an all-digital work process. Simply download the data (imagery) from the camera's CCD array (eyes) to your PC, open it up in Adobe Photoshop and make your image optimizations and changes if needed, then save the image data back to the memory card via your camera or a reader, and then go to the digital photo-imaging kiosk or workstation of your choice for final digital image photo printing.

Let us cover some of the specifics of the 2004 Shoot-Out, such as the players in each category, and some of the winning unit's features. In the Stand-Alone (what I call a Kiosk) Category, there were seven entrants, including Pixel Magic (the eventual winner, with their iStation 150 product), Kodak (with the second place Picture Maker G3 Print Station 36 product), Olympus, Polaroid, Lucidiom, Mitsubishi and KIS Photo Me, ranked respectively. Pixel Magic, who has been in the Photo Kiosk marketplace for around a dozen years but does not possess the resources of some of the larger conglomerates in this category, won this category with great print quality, overall usability, and it's owner friendly operation.

In the Remote (what I call a digital photo imaging station or workstation) Category were five entrants, including: Kodak (winning with it's Picture Maker G3 Order Station LS product), Pixel Magic (a close second with their iStation 250 CT product) and Whitech USA, AGFA and Oblo Multimedia rounding out the field. Again Kodak and Pixel Magic won their category with output quality, innovative features, ease of operation and kiosk owner support.

In the Stand-Alone/Remote Combination category, there were eight entrants, including Kodak (winning yet again with the Picture Maker G3 Print Station 24 product), Pixel Magic (another close second with their Photo Ditto product), as well as Kiosk Information Systems, Whitech USA, Lucidiom, Oblo Multimedia, SilverWire and Pixology, in that order. Oblo Multimedia's Zero DVD and Printing Kiosk has my vote for the most futuristic design in the competition, and will be of interest to upscale establishments such as clothing stores and other upscale retail outlets.

Was there a clear and present winner at DIMA's first annual Digital Photo Kiosk Shoot-Out? The answer is yes on two different fronts. Kodak leveraged its large size, vast corporate resources, well-known brand and decades in the photo imaging business to present a unified and flawless front to the digital photo kiosk marketplace and to this shoot-out. Let's call them Goliath. Much smaller Pixel Magic, on the other hand, wielded a dozen years experience providing digital photo kiosk hardware against some very massive corporate resources, and came up victorious (or nearly so) in each of the three product categories. In the photo kiosk marketplace, it's not always size or brand that counts. It is performance alongside of impeccable quality all located at the right price point. Pretty soon, "point-and-shoot" will become "point, shoot, plug-in and process" in this ever-expanding consumer digital imaging marketplace.

KIOSK Magazine Online - inreviewma04

Posted by Craig at September 7, 2004 10:17 PM