Mike Matter creator of edgertronic – Q&A

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During the review of the edgertronic camera; HSC asked Mike Matter the brains behind it a series of questions “some submitted by our readers” regarding past present and future of the high speed camera market, sensors and where things are going in the camera market. Many of his answers are very detailed and offer a glimpse into his own efforts and how he sees the future evolving with the continual adoption of high speed capable devices.

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Mike Matter from Sanstreak/edgertronic Interview:

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HSC – Q: It has been now a couple of years since the edgertronic has been creating great imagery for labs and video professionals. What have been the most surprising uses the camera has enabled that were unexpected?

Mike Matter: There have been a lot of interesting uses, but the videos shot by Dennis Hlynsky at RISD are a standout. His videos, like “flight of a small brown moth”  combine excellent cinematography, creative editing and are just fun to watch.

HSC – Q: For new prospective buyers of the edgertronic, what is the main selling point of the camera?

M M: Customer satisfaction. Repeat customers tell a story: An aerospace and a sports equipment company have each purchased 7 edgertronics, a defense contractor has purchased 5 and numerous corporations and universities have 2 or 3 edgertronic cameras.

We’ve put a lot of time, effort and pride into the edgertronic, and it’s made in the USA. Today, it’s rare to find products that simply work like advertised. We strive to go beyond that and try to deliver exceptional products. Our customers seem to agree.

HSC – Q:  We have seen tons of footage from the edgertronic and it has really created an open avenue for capturing high speed phenomena; do you see an over-saturation of high speed video on the net or is there room for much more?

M M: It’s not saturated, but I’d like to see more fresh and unexpected work.

HSC – Q:  Many videographers say that high speed video is a gimmick and that long term it will be a passing fad, what is your response to this crowd?

M M: Just like microscopes and telescopes, high-speed lets you see what was previously unseen. It will always have value in science and industry.

Entertainment is more complex. High-speed is a new media and is subject to a period of experimentation until the artists, directors and producers find their way. Think about how the use of synthesizers and other electronic instruments have evolved over the years; what was cool in the 60’s and 70’s is painfully embarrassing today.

HSC – Q: What will you think will force big manufacturers like Sony or Panasonic to offer affordable high quality HD video?

M M: This will require a radical change in sensor technology to make a mass market camera that serves both the general purpose and high-speed markets without substantially compromising either. To understand this, we need to discuss sensor technology.

With the exception of some specialized or esoteric cameras, all current digital cameras are based on CMOS sensor technology. Compared to the earlier CCD technology, this has lead to dramatic improvements in resolution, light sensitivity, overall image quality and cost.

CMOS sensors are intrinsically rolling shutter devices. We’ve all seen the strange artifacts that rolling shutters create when there is image motion. High-speed is all about capturing events with extreme motion, and for that you need a global shutter. While it is possible to design a CMOS sensor with a global shutter, doing so will nullify all the advantages listed above.

The sensor is the heart of any digital still and/or video camera, and when choosing a sensor, the manufacturer needs to consider the camera’s intended market. A CMOS rolling shutter makes a great general purpose camera for the mass market and a CCD or CMOS global shutter camera makes a great high-speed camera. Switch them around and you will get disappointing results.

Today, 99.999% of the market is best served by CMOS, rolling shutter cameras. Unless the sensor technologies radically change, specialized cameras like the edgertronic will remain the best option for demanding high-speed applications.

In summary, rolling shutters are here to stay.

HSC – Q: Will the edgertronic be hardware upgradeable at some point or offer a discount for clients if a new product is released in the future?

M M: While we don’t comment on future product plans, the current product has a lot of latent features that we are enabling in each software release. Our latest free update adds multi-shot, smart calibrate and other features that were designed into the hardware from day one but were waiting for software development and testing.

HSC – Q:  While the edgertronic is currently the most affordable high quality slow motion camera out there, the competition is heating up and we have another Kickstarter project “the fps1000” making waves in the high speed space. Are you following the project?

M M:  Yes. We are following all the developments in the high-speed market. If you need a high quality camera today, edgertronic is your only option. We’re not standing still, and when and if the other cameras are production ready, we’ll have added new features and products.

HSC – Q: If the fps1000 delivers what it promises, how do you plan to answer in either software or hardware to compete? Is there pressure to do something about it?

M M:  Before starting the design of the edgertronic, many different architectures were proposed, analyzed and compared. Some were too expensive or complex. Some had good specs on paper, but we knew the real delivered performance would fall short. Some were low cost, but gave up too much performance to be useful. The fps1000 is similar to this low end architecture that we rejected. The edgertronic represents the sweet spot given today’s technology. It’s not the cheapest, or the highest performance, but positioned in the middle; it offers the best functionality and value for the broadest range of customers. If you can buy only one high-speed camera, the edgertronic is the one to have.

We’ve been shipping the edgertronic for over 18 months. When the fps1000 ships to customers, we are confident that side-by-side tests will show the edgertronic to have a substantial advantage in features, performance, usability, build quality, and over-all value.

HSC – Q: There seems to be a mass migration of footage acquisition to 4k happening, with the increase in resolution there has to be a massive data increase for high speed. Do you see 4k high speed at over 1000fps as an affordable camera system this decade?

M M:  No. A 4K, 1000fps camera will need 12-16GBytes/sec of internal processing. Unfortunately, Moore’s law is running out of steam and this type of data bandwidth will not be seen in a mainstream camera.

Imagine if you did have a camera that could shoot 4K @ 1000fps. It could do 1080p at around 4000 fps, or 720p at 8000fps. So if you had a really fast event to capture, like an imploding light bulb: “Video Here”, would you shoot it at 4K or 720p?

HSC – Q: What is more important for high speed in your opinion; resolution or low light performance?

M M:  I think your question is asking the small pixel vs big pixel question. You can pack more small pixels on the same size die and get more resolution, but big pixels capture more photons and give better light sensitivity.

We considered the trade-offs between big and small pixel cameras and we built a big pixel camera, to give the best performance at high frame rates.

Low light or ambient lighting are rarely adequate for high-speed. The ultra short exposure times inherent in high-speed make lighting a major issue. You haven’t really experienced high-speed until you’ve worried that your blindingly bright lights might set the subject on fire.

Consider this video of the shot leaving a shotgun:  

The edgertronic is capable of 4us exposures, but even on a sunny June day in California, I only had enough light for a 10us exposure. It’s hard to beat the sun for brightness and sometimes that’s not enough.

HSC – Q: With phones now about to offer 480fps at 1080p, like what the Mediatek Helios X10 and X20 chip allows, will the high speed rental and sales market be impacted in any way?

M M: It will increase rental and sales volumes. Smart phone users will get a taste of what high-speed can do but they will have all the limitations of rolling shutter sensors. When the user needs frame rates above 480fps or exposure times measured in microseconds, we’ll sell them an edgertronic.

HSC – Q: There is so much more than frame rate or portability to a high speed camera, what do you think is the most important factor when purchasing a high speed camera solution?

M M: A high-speed camera is a tool and the best one depends on your application and its unique requirements and constraints.

We’ve designed the edgertronic to be small, rugged, powerful, and affordable. We worked hard making it the most compact camera at this performance level. Many industrial users are using the edgertronic because it has the performance they need and is compact enough to fit in tight spots.

HSC – Q:  Is 3D slow motion the next realm where a camera like the edgertronic can bring something new to the table?

M M: Yes. Software version 2.0 (Sept 2014) added genlock, which allows one or more edgertronic cameras to precisely frame lock to a master edgertronic camera. Customers are using this for narrow-angle stereopsis as well as tracking the 3D motion of particles in a fluid flow.

HSC – Q: Are there plans for a Wifi controllable high speed camera; one that could be placed on a drone?

M M:  What kind of drone: A quadcopter or a “drop a bomb on the bad guys” drone?

Seriously, we considered built in wifi, but we found it cheaper, easier, and more reliable to simply attach a personal Wifi router to the ethernet port. You can even power the router from either of the edgertronics’ two USB ports.

HSC – Q:  Have you been contacted by rental outfits or large high speed companies expressing concern of a camera like the edgertronic with it’s low price eroding their market share or profit margins?

M M: One of the “Big Guys” in the high-speed world has used edgertronic in its web search optimized ads. It shows how we are succeeding.

HSC – Q:  If you could make the next perfect slow motion camera, what features would you build it with?

M M: Science and industry have become our biggest customer and we’re looking to better serve their needs. Unfortunately, I can’t go into more details at this time.

HSC – Q:  What kind of software improvements has the company been working for the edgertronic? Or is it pretty much complete.

M M: Software is never done. We just added multi-shot mode, which allows you to take several videos in a row without having to wait for the captured videos to be encoded. We added genlock, which enables exact exposure synchronization between multiple cameras. We are working on ways to make video encoding more flexible and will add audio capture as a convenience feature. Further, we are considering novel ways for multiple cameras to share information using their network connection.

Our customers are a good source for ideas on what new software features would make their life easier.

HSC – Q: Who is your primary client base; film makers, hobbyists, scientists, schools or soccer moms 😉 ?

M M: Initially, our customers were early adopters like hobbyists and filmmakers. Now that we’ve established a solid reputation for delivering a quality product, about 70% of our customers are in the industrial, scientific, and educational markets. In these markets, the monochrome camera outsells color by almost 3:1. With the growing use in industrial and scientific markets, we have added many software features, collectively called CAMAPI, to allow the camera to be integrated into an overall system control and data acquisition environment. Our customers are using CAMAPI for capturing rocket launches, debugging assembly line malfunctions, optimizing diesel engine performance, nuclear physics, and automated slow-motion video booths.

HSC – Q: Most large manufacturers of cameras that do some sort of slow motion do so at the cost of resolution, creating aliasing and moire or pretty awful softness. Do you think it is hardware limitation or released crippled from the start? Are these limitations the reason cameras like the edgertronic will continue to be relevant for many years to come?

M M: This was discussed above in a question above to some extent. These are hardware limitations due to the sensor technology. They could make the cameras better at high-speed, but that would hurt their performance in just about all other metrics. Given the size of the consumer vs high-speed markets, they are making the right tradeoff.

HSC – Q: With Canon Magic Lantern now booting Linux, do you think it could open the door for Canon cameras to do some sort of windowed slow motion?

M M:  The Canon cameras use a rolling shutter sensor that isn’t well suited for anything involving fast motion. This will always limit its usefulness in high-speed videography.

HSC – Q: Some readers of High Speed Cameras have mostly Canon lenses and they see the Nikon mount on the edgertronic as a barrier of entry. Are there plans to offer an EF passive canon version or passive Micro 4/3rds version of the edgertronic at some point that could adapt many more lens mounts?

M M:  The edgertronic was designed as a manual body for use with passive (non-electronic) lenses.

Canon EF and Micro 4/3rds are electronic lens standards. There are no OEM passive lenses in these mounts and a very limited number of third party passive lenses.

If we put an EF passive mount on the camera, you still couldn’t use your Canon glass. About all you could do is buy an EF to F mount adapter and put an F mount lens on it. What’s the point in that?

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The Nikon F mount is the de-facto standard for industrial, scientific, and machine vision applications. The F mount is used world-wide and a variety of quality new, used, and third party lenses can be purchased now and into the foreseeable future.

Truth be known, I own and use Olympus OM and 4/3rds cameras and lenses, and I worked for a division of Canon. The choice of the Nikon F mount was a business decision.

HSC – Q:  Have you received recognition or awards for creating the edgertronic that you feel proud of?

M M: The majority of our sales are to research, industrial, and defense customers. Their applications are often proprietary or classified, and you’ll never see any viral videos or know the great things they are doing with the edgertronic. One customer told us “The videos are great, it’s a shame we can’t show them to you”. They then purchased 6 more cameras. We’ll take it.

A few of our customers are able to share their work with the edgertronic and we thank them.

Last summer, Grace Young (MIT Mech Eng ’14), spent several weeks underwater using the edgertronic as part of Fabien Cousteau’s Mission 31 and her work has received much recognition. “You can read her story here”  as well as Fabien Cousteau’s TED Talk on Mission 31 Here

We’ve been getting some great press coverage as well. IEEE Spectrum ran an excellent online and print article about us here!

HSC – Q: What has been the hardest part of the whole experience of creating the edgertronic? What would you have changed if anything if you could do it all over again?

M M: Getting the highest maximum possible frame rate supported by the sensor required creative FPGA programming. Maximizing image quality by compensating for each image sensor’s unique properties was also a challenge. Technology is always advancing.

HSC – Q: Slow motion is as much about lighting as about the camera; do you recommend a specific light be it LED or HMI that works great with the edgertronic?  Any recommendations?

M M: LEDs are the future. They have high brightness and output, low heat, and can operate on DC. We’re using the Westcott Skylux. It works well and you can even power it and the camera off of the Paul C Buff Vagabond Mini battery pack.

HSC – Q:  Cameras like the Lytro that capture the light field can produce amazing results in the right environment like microscopy; in your opinion are high-speed cameras evolving into capturing high speed light field images in the not so distant future?

M M: The Lytro captures the light field with special optics and oversampling at the focal plane. Clearly, a high-speed camera combined with adaptive optics could capture the light field by oversampling in the temporal domain. This could have applications in particle image velocimetry and other research.

HSC – Q: What is the most exciting upcoming imaging technology you have seen or read about recently?

M M: Back-side illumination offers improved fill-factor and quantum efficiency. Alternative color filter arrays like CMY and RGBW reduce the light loss in the filters. These two technologies, when applied to high-speed sensors, could provide a 2-4X increase in light sensitivity.

Backside illuminated sensor structure. Courtesy of Sony and Adorama!

HSC – Q: We hear that the most popular edgertronic camera might be the black and white model for it’s low light abilities, will there ever come a time where such a camera might flip a switch and be able to choose monochrome or color?

M M: No. The monochrome has better sensitivity because it doesn’t have suffer the light loss caused by a color sensor’s Bayer grid filter.

HSC – Q:  What made you and your team embark on creating the first high quality affordable slow motion camera? Was it a delayed dream or just by accident?

M M: It was inevitable. Using home-made equipment, I took my first high-speed photos in 1977. At MIT, I majored in electrical engineering and took several optics classes, including one from Doc Edgerton. I designed and built a working digital camera in 1982, a high performance graphics display in 1984, and had a job repairing Doc’s high-speed equipment. After graduating in 1984, I designed workstations, graphics hardware, super-computers, desktops, laptops, and MPEG decoders. In 2000, I started an engineering consulting firm and designed a variety of products including networking, IC fabrication, metrology, digital audio/video, medical, and consumer electronics. In 2012, I founded Sanstreak Corp. which designs, manufactures, and sells the edgertronic brand high-speed camera.

A fascination with high-speed photography, a solid electrical engineering and optics education, and a successful career designing complex digital systems inevitably leads to the edgertronic.

HSC – Q: Finally, do you have some thoughts or insight for the edgertronic community or prospective future edgertronic users?

M M: In photos and video, proper lighting is important. High-speed, with its high frame rates and ultra-short exposures, makes lighting even more of a challenge. Better lighting will allow for higher frame rates, shorter exposures, and/or better depth of field. Plan your setup to maximize lighting. You can never have too much light!

Don’t go buy a fancy lens until you understand the trade-offs. Some lens features, like macro and zoom, reduce your maximum aperture and increase your lighting requirements.

Take test videos to verify you are able to see the details of interest.

If you’re new to the field, get a good book on the technical principals of photography. A solid understanding of optics and what happens inside a camera will make using the edgertronic second nature.

Keep sharing your videos and let us all see what you’ve done with the edgertronic.

Most of the features we’ve added in our software releases are the result of customer requests. Please let us know how we can improve our products.

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HSC – : We sincerely thank Mike Matter of Sanstreak/edgertronic for answering these questions in detail and by lending an edgertronic for review.

You can get more information about the edgertronic camera at: http://edgertronic.com/ 

You can read our in depth review on the edgertronic camera here: edgertronic high speed camera review!

Thanks for your support of HSC, we appreciate it!

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