Seeing Again For The Very First Time: The High-Speed Photography Of Vision Research

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SPIKE Reel by The Marmalade who use a Vision Research camera

Occasionally you experience a new technology that rearranges your thinking. Alex Boniface interviews Vision Research’s Rick Robinson about their High-Speed Photography, but have a look at the videos and let the images do the talking

For many decades, High-Speed photography has been a tool largely reserved for the scientific and engineering sectors. The ability to record thousands, if not millions of frames per second allows researchers to visualise and analyse the motion of virtually anything, from computer chip manufacturing robots to rocket-propelled grenades. However as the price of this technology has started to decline, the creative sector has started to embrace its possibilities. The emotional engagement made available through these techniques allows viewers to see something again for the very first time. For over twenty years, Vision Research, a New-Jersey based company whose cameras have won countless accolades, including an Emmy, across both the creative and industrial sectors have been at the helm of this technology. After seeing the Vision Research presentation at Luminance I wanted to find out more, so I arranged an interview with Rick Robinson, the company’s Vice-President of Marketing.

1. In 1992, the Photographic Analysis Company created Vision Research as a separate entity whose primary goal would be the design and fabrication of high-speed, electronic, digital cameras. What factors led to the Photographic Analysis Company deciding to drop film? And why did they feel that to start a foray into the digital world, a new company had to be created?

Rick Robinson: The main impetus for moving to digital technology came from observations and insight from the company founders. In that time frame, there were a lot of things starting to move from analog to digital technology, including watches, radios, televisions, etc. It was still “early days” but the trends seemed clear to the founders. A new company allowed for a new beginning without the momentum of existing technology, methods, tools and resources to distract the key mission – to create a digital high-speed camera.

2.  Until the release of your Phantom Miro M120, high-speed cameras had long been the preserve of scientific institutes and wealthy production companies. How has the market reaction been to this product announcement?

Rick Robinson: Actually, Phantom cameras began to see use in market segments other than science, engineering and industrial use from the very beginning. Phantom v5 cameras were used for special effects in a motion picture as early as 2004. At NAB in 2004, Vision Research won numerous awards for our Phantom v9 camera. Based on these experiences and requests from the entertainment industry, we embarked on the development of cameras specifically designed for TV and Motion Picture production. The Phantom HD and 65 were introduced at NAB in 2006 and essentially created the ultra-high speed market for entertainment applications that we enjoy today. These were followed by the Phantom Flex in 2010 and now the Phantom Miro camera line in 2012. At each step, we’ve improved performance, image quality, workflow and accessibility.

3. The Phantom cameras are produced for both scientific and creative purposes. Which of these provides your largest customer base, and is it changing?

Rick Robinson: Scientific, engineering and industrial applications still dominate our business. We estimate we have more than 5000 cameras installed in these applications. The entertainment industry, while small, has seen some good growth off-and-on. It is somewhat cyclic.

The Phantom Flex

3. Your most recently developed product, the Phantom Miro M120 is the cheapest you have manufactured, yet it is still around $40,000. Despite being a large reduction from the $125,000 price most of its predecessors had, the high cost is still preventing Vision Research from tapping into the mass consumer markets. Would you ever consider pairing your technology with some of the leading DSLR manufacturers to attract a wider market appeal? What might the barriers to such partnerships be?

Rick Robinson: The bulk of sales are still to businesses, whether in industry or entertainment. We are seeing some interest from independent production houses and smaller rental houses, but at its current price, it is still well above the consumer or prosumer buyer can afford. We do have cameras in the $12,000 to $20,000 price range, but these are not high definition cameras.

The barriers to lower cost are challenging. The sensors we use are custom-designed and fabricated in order to get the speed and image quality we need. This is expensive. In fact, most of the components we use are not “off the shelf” components and are special or customized in some way to deliver the high-speed performance. Couple this with the firmware and software needed to make it all work and you have a costly product. Are we hoping to continue to drive this down? Of course! If anyone is interested in taking this technology into the consumer space, we are willing to talk.

4. The Slow-Mo Guys, an extremely likeable British duo armed with a YouTube channel, have gained phenomenal viral success by posting videos of themselves experimenting with the Phantom cameras. Has this online success story brought Vision Research further into the public domain?

Rick Robinson: Some, I’m sure. And, there are dozens of other similar sites as well as highly visible use in TV shows (Time Warp, Mythbusters, etc.), live sports broadcasts, documentaries and motion pictures which have helped spread the Phantom brand from a specialty camera to more of a household name.

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5. At the Luminance conference you suggested that ‘when you see it in slow motion, you see it again for the very first time.’ From some of the examples we have seen, this is certainly very true, and the emotional engagement people can have when viewing these clips is something still and standard-rate photography cannot offer. In all of your experience with high-speed imagery, which clip that you’ve seen has resonated with you the most?

Rick Robinson: Tough question. I guess what I find most fascinating tend to be clips of physical phenomena that are know to exist, but can’t be seen. Shock waves are a good example. Watching a shock wave propagate from the site of an explosion, sometimes forming beautiful patterns and even reflecting off surfaces is quite beautiful to see.

6. What’s next for Vision Research, and where do you hope to be as a company in the future?

Rick Robinson: We will continue to push the envelope for speed, resolution, light-sensitivity and image quality. Our goal is to make high-speed imaging that is both leading edge in technology and capability and also more accessible to people.

For more info on Vision Research

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