Editor's Note: To view the accompanying Teardown TV episode featuring a discussion of the Flip Ultra's insides, click here.
When engineers at Pure Digital Inc. sat down a couple of years back to lay out their next project, they had many of the typical design criteria in mind: low cost, high quality, size, ease of use and low power. However, they also had two other criteria that would in the end set them apart: ease of use and sharability. In a word, just plain fun. For three-year-olds to ninety and over, the Flip Ultra digital camcorder provides exactly that. With an intuitive eight-button interface, a bright viewing screen, VGA video at 30 frames per second, intuitive controls, a snappy, quick-connect USB interface to computers, embedded software for downloading and viewing and APIs to YouTube, AOL, MySpace and other sites for quick uploads, the camera is both high quality and, as the Wall Street Journal so aptly puts it, "stunningly simple to use."
The camera can store 30 min (1 Gbyte) or 1 hour (2 Gbytes) of video and costs $149 or $179, respectively. It outputs 640x480 VGA video (TV quality) and comes with an NTSC TV out cable with analog RCA plugs. Other basic specs include dimensions of 4.17 x 2.16 x 1.25 inches, a built-in wide-range microphone, speaker, 2x zoom and advanced profile MPEG 4 AVI support.
Fig.1: Flip Ultra showing pop-out USB connector and TV out (NTSC) on side.
As any designer knows, in a world of feature creep and functional mazes, making something that's both desirable and easy to use isn't easy, so I asked the team behind the Flip how they did it and they introduced me to their world of high-end industrial and user-interface design, advanced image processing and cutting-edge algorithms and non-linear curves for smooth exposure control.
According to Simon Fleming, the company's head of marketing, the idea for the Flip evolved from the industry's first single-use digital still camera it had introduced in 2002 and the first disposable digital camcorder they introduced in 2004. Those devices had record, playback and delete, but "'Why does it have to be disposable?' we asked ourselves'."
At the time, he said, "video [in general] was still stuck in the pre point-and-shoot days of still cameras," where the systems were so complex that the typical user was the husband or hobbyists. With the advent of point and shoot and 1-hour development labs, moms became the volume photographers. Also, according to the consumer electronics industry stats, said Fleming, the market for digital still cameras is 30 million units per year and only 3 to 4 million for digital video cameras. "Video still hasn't been served up in the same way [as point-and-shoot still cameras]."
Finally, the company saw the opportunity for not only capturing but also sharing video via user-generated-content sites like YouTube. "We had to adjust our strategy," he said, and the road to the Flip had begun.
To address the ease of use issue, the designers rallied around a theme: No extra buttons. "The user would always know what each button does," said Fleming. In fact, the team had a goal that within 30 seconds, the user should know how to use it. "It must be intuitive or we won't use it," he said.
For this user, the ramp-up period was almost exactly that: I inserted the batteries, took a few seconds to realize the power button was on the side (there's no On/Off decals), hit the big red record button on the button panel in the rear, and it was off and running. The other six buttons are arranged around the record button and are for zoom in and out, forward and reverse, and play and delete. (Technically speaking, there's two more buttons: one for the flip-out USB interface and one for the sliding battery-compartment release.)
Fig.2: Rear of Flip Ultra showing minimalist approach to buttons and user interface in general.
To stop recording, just hit the red button again, but this is where I encountered the only thing I didn't like about the Flip: it's just plain hard to get it to stop recording. You have to push really hard. According to Fleming, this was a trade-off they had to make, as some users were hitting the record/stop function accidentally. Nonetheless, even my 6- and 4-year-old kids took to it right awayand loved it.
Downloading was snap, just flip open the USB connection, plug it in, and the embedded software takes care of the rest, including providing the APIs needed to upload to YouTube and other video-sharing sites. "We wanted it to be fully self-sufficient," said Fleming, "no extra buttons, no memory card, USB cables, software or disks." Also, non-techie users don't have to know the difference between MPEG 4 and MPEG 3, he added, "it's all done in the background, including transcoding video to a WMV file to email video."
The optics used a fixed focus (0.8 m-to-infinity) lens with an f/2.4 shutter rating that provided excellent video in very poor lighting conditions. This was a critical issue for the designers. "We made sure we did video really - really - well," said Fleming. "We spent a lot of time on that, versus bells and whistles." The same quality applied to the viewing display, which comprises a 1.5-in.-diagonal, 528- x 132-pixel transflective TFT LCD.
While the zoom is only 2x (digital), Fleming said any more would cause too much degradation. "Plus, we found people happy to use their feet to zoom."
For the industrial design necessary to package the whole device in a slick and efficient form factor, the company partnered with Smart Design, a consumer products design specialist. They had to balance size, form, aesthetics and how the parts fit together. One issue was the batteries, which were a third of the overall volume. "Smart Design came up with the exterior front plate removal to access the battery compartment," said Fleming, "this kept the sleek design."
But thickness was still an issue, given the depth of the lens. "It's a 2.8 [centimeter] lens: we could've used a smaller one, but the quality would've gone down," said Fleming. To alleviate that, Smart Design came with the idea of a curved front plate that accommodates the optics' structure, yet still keeps the sides slim.
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