From a design concept to a crowd-funding campaign to a product backed by a major brand, the Polaroid Socialmatic represents an alternative to traditional product development methods. Is crowd-sourced innovation the shakeup that the photography industry needs?
The Consumer Electronics Show is just about over and, as far as the photo industry goes, it’s been a week of anticipated sequels and sensible updates rather than revolutionary changes. In one notable bit of news, Polaroid featured specs and a release timeline for the Polaroid Socialmatic. That’s not really a surprise, Polaroid has been promoting the camera for more than a year now. But after a series of announcements from Sony, Nikon, Canon, and Panasonic that could hardly be called innovative, the Socialmatic’s unique development is an interesting case study for comparison.
The Socialmatic is a unique concept: a networked camera with instant printing capabilities and a design inspired by the Instagram app icon. It was first introduced in May of 2012 as a design proposal by the Italian firm ADR Studios, which then sought to find a production partner when the concept received went viral. Somewhere along the line, Polaroid took notice and, after reaching an agreement with Socialmatic last February, they agreed to extend their brand name to the product.
It’s often overlooked that the Socialmatic is not a Polaroid property. Instead, it is the eponymous product of Socialmatic LLC, a completely independent company that is still associated with ADR studios. Instead of selling their design, Socialmatic partnered with a company called C&A Licensing, which currently controls the rights to produce Polaroid branded products.
As a part of their deal, Socialmatic is allowed to brand their camera with the Polaroid name and logo, and presumably C&A will share in their earnings. It seems also that there is a continuing cooperation between Socialmatic and the main line of Polaroid products since Socialmatic is being promoted at the Polaroid CES booth and on their website.
Branding contracts aren’t unique in the photo industry. Any Kodak camera you can find in stores nowadays is the result of a similar arrangement. However, the notion of signing such an agreement with a tiny company based only on a design, a strange one at that, is both unique and intriguing.
Innovative and quirky proposals for photography products seeking crowd-funding through services like Kickstarter are a dime a dozen. Recent examples include the Jigsaw Puzzle Pinhole Camera, the Lightstrap iPhone Ring Flash, the Bublcam, and the Pixelstick. Some of these campaigns are successful, and send their products on to commercial success, but all too many die a premature death or suffer from lack of exposure.
That could have been the story for the Socialmatic, but thanks to a Polaroid partnership, it’s looking nearly certain that their brainchild will see the light of day later this year. Whether or not people will buy the odd square camera remains to be seen, but the mere fact that it exists has put Polaroid in far more headlines than their native products this season. Other companies should take note.
By buying out small photography startups, or simply extending branding offers in the same way that Polaroid did, major camera manufacturers can access innovative designs and ideas for relatively small investments of effort and capital. What if, for example, Canon had featured the official Canon meMini wearable camera next to their run-of-the-mill compact updates? Or if GoPro had introduced the GoPro Branded Pocket Drone? Both are existing products — albeit without any affiliations to Canon or GoPro — currently gathering funds from Kickstarter campaigns, similar to the position that the Socialmatic occupied not so long ago.
Sure, neither of the products are in these respective companies’ wheelhouses, but isn’t that a main driver of innovation? Canon’s imaging division will never survive the next decade by simply pumping out a sequence of mildly interesting compact cameras. Products that defy convention can reinvigorate entire brands, or at the very least attract significant press attention.
Consider this: when photographer Kelly Angood launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a cardboard pinhole camera based on a classic Hasselblad 500 model, Hasselblad threatened to sue her for copyright infringement if she brought the project to completion, and Angood responded by changing her design to a more neutral-looking Twin Lens Reflex camera called the Videre. But what if Hasselblad had offered to strike a branding agreement instead?
By offering their name and logistical assistance, Hasselblad could have associated their brand with a unique product that, thanks to its successful crowd-funding attempt, had already shown the potential for commercial success. It could have been a huge hit, or at the very least would have shown that Hasselblad isn’t afraid to shake things up.
I won’t get ahead of myself, It would be unwise for camera manufacturers, or any tech firm for that matter, to view Kickstarter and similar services as shopping malls for unique design proposals. Some would likely resist approaches by large brands; there is a reason that they chose to pursue crowd-funding and not major corporate support after all.
But when the biggest names in the business are struggling to adapt to a marketplace that shifts quicker than sand dunes in a hurricane, propositioning designers with big ideas but small means is a fruitful and efficient way to breathe new life into a stale product line.