All kids cultivate particular interests growing up. For Michael Matter, Edgertronic’s co-inventor, it was high-speed flash photography. He got hooked when his father brought home a book of high-speed images taken by Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton, the legendary MIT professor of electrical engineering who pioneered stroboscopic photography.
“It was amazing stuff,” Matter recalls, “and I wanted to figure out how he did it. No, more than that I wanted to do it. I wanted to make those images. But then I looked into the cost of equipment, and it was thousands of dollars. I was 13 or 14, this was the 1970s, and my budget was pretty well restricted to my allowance.”
But Matter had a highly technical bent, and he was undaunted.
“I bought an off-the-shelf camera flash and put in a smaller value capacitor,” he recalls. “That allowed me to reduce the flash period from a millisecond to 20 or 30 microseconds. I had lower light output, of course, but I knew I could work with that. I got those short bursts I needed.”
Matter’s dad was an avid golfer, and he asked his son to take some shots of him teeing off — or rather, shots of the face of his trusty driver at the precise moment of ball impact. Matter took a spring from an old tape measure and jury-rigged a trigger for the flash.
“I’d put it ever-so-slightly in front of the ball,” he says, “and it worked pretty well. It’d stand up to four or five hits. We got some good images of the ball distorting, morphing into a kind of egg shape, on impact.”
Matter later matriculated at MIT, and he sent in images of those golf balls to Edgerton, along with a fan letter. He ended up taking a class from Edgerton, and his admiration for the idiosyncratic engineer only grew.
“He was the quintessential maker,” Matter says of his mentor. “Almost everything in his lab was slightly radioactive from all his field work photographing atom bomb and hydrogen bomb tests. He’d look at a problem and come up with a solution. Sometimes his solutions were crude and ugly, but they worked. That was part of his philosophy — better to have something crude and ugly that works than something elegant and expensive that doesn’t work as well.”
Edgerton had a camera capable of taking sub-microsecond exposures, but it was extremely bulky, and he let Matter tinker with it.
“It had huge vacuum tubes, and it had a notorious reputation around the lab for unreliability,” Matter said. “I took it apart and was able to make some improvements on it. It worked better.”
And did Edgerton praise his protégé? Not at all.
“That wasn’t his style,” Matter said, “and I admired him for it. If you were in his lab, a certain level of competence was assumed. That was better than praise.”
Matter spent the next 30 years designing electronic devices, including servers, computers, and consumer products. And he was good at what he did; he and business partner Juan Pineda were principal designers for the Apple Powerbook 500 series. But he never lost interest in high-speed photography, and he remained frustrated by the stratospherically high price of the equipment. Top-end high-speed cameras can cost $100,000 to $500,000 — even “cheap” models register in the mid five figures. But his conversations with Pineda inspired him to think about the technology in a highly disruptive way.
“Early in my work with Juan, he made an observation to me,” Matter recalls. “We were working on a mid-performance, low-price project at Apollo Computers. Another group we were talking with was focused on high-performance, high-end systems. Juan said, ‘You know, anybody can do a no-holds-barred design when money is no object. Sooner or later, you’ll get what you want. But the challenge is when you’re limited by expense. That’s when skill comes in.’”
That idea — relatively high performance at a low price point — stuck with Matter, and fused with his predilections for deep tech tinkering. Ultimately, he was driven back to his childhood hobby. With Pineda, he spent two years skunk-working on high-speed videography. The Edgertronic was the result of all their brainstorming. At about $5,500, it is well within the means of anyone seriously interested in photography; professional-grade digital SLR cameras, after all, can sell for $10,000. And the fact that the Edgertronic runs Linux and has an Ethernet port makes it an effective liaison between the physical and virtual worlds.
Like all digital video cameras, the Edgertronic operates in a pretty straightforward fashion: light travels through a lens to a sensor, and from there is transmitted to a processor where images are translated as digital information, then stored in a memory component.
That said, the Edgertronic isn’t just another video camera. At the relatively low pixel resolution of 192×96, it can operate in excess of 17,000 frames per second (fps). At the maximum resolution of 1280×1024, the camera processes 500 fps — still impressive, given standard cinema speed is 18 fps. In an evaluation of the Edgertronic on tested.com, TV’s Mythbusters website, Norman Chan opined the Edgertronic’s “sweet spot” was 640×360 resolution at about 2,000 fps. On his review, Chan has posted a clip taken by an Edgertronic of a hammer smashing a light bulb at 5,000 fps. The video is crisp, and the glass shards fly about in a slow, stately and almost balletic manner:
In other words, the Edgertronic delivers on its promise: good quality high-speed video on a working person’s budget. How did they do it? Matter isn’t evasive, exactly, but he is loathe to discuss specifics. He emphasized the Edgertronic did not involve the “bleeding edge” of engineering — the ne plus ultra of videographic technology. Rather, he said, he and Pineda used existing components in new ways.
“We’ve done it before,” he observes. “For example, we were once working on a graphics processing project, and we needed a chip that could do several multiples per second. Well, there wasn’t a chip like that out there made specifically for graphics processing. But Texas Instruments did have a $40 speech recognition chip that could do five multiples a second. Some people were using it for music synthesizers or mixing studios. Texas Instruments never envisioned it for work stations or graphics processing. But we did. And it worked.”
In his review, Chan reveals that Edgertronic uses an off-the-shelf 18x14mm CMOS sensor. While not dirt cheap — it accounts for about half the price of the camera — it costs exponentially less than any custom-designed sensor.
In any event, cheap sensors alone do not a functional $5,000 high-speed video camera make. As Matter intimates, the proprietary leavening in this particular technological loaf is engineering. But what about applications? Sure, you can record bullet flights in your home basement shooting range. But not many of us combine doomsday prep philosophy with an interest in high-speed photography.
“Our camera isn’t going to be used for slo-mo replays in the World Series or the Superbowl,” says Matter. “That’s not our intent. Obviously, it has application in the arts and filmmaking, and will appeal to amateurs and hobbyists for their personal projects. But we think industry and research will account for most of our orders.”
One example: production lines. Say somewhere in the bowels of your line, a widget isn’t being stuck to a doo-hickey in the most felicitous way possible. Some high-speed footage of the assembly process could tell you what’s wrong. But standard high-speed cameras are rather bulky, and most are not amenable to sticking into tight places. Plus, once again, they’re extremely pricey. At several hundred thousand dollars a pop, it could well make more sense to eschew the camera and troubleshoot the line by tearing it apart. Enter the Edgertronic.
“Unlike other high-speed cameras, ours are compact, no larger than an SLR camera,” says Matter, “so you can put them almost anywhere. Also, price won’t be an issue for even small companies. The same with research facilities. Say a small lab is fine-tuning a new industrial process. A high-speed camera could really help with that, but you couldn’t justify a $500,000 outlay. We think the Edgertronic will change that dynamic.”
Matter and Pineda thus promote their camera as a basic research and investigative tool. Edgertronics already have been purchased by researchers working on fluid dynamics, particle systems, and animal locomotion; by high schools and colleges for various subjects; and by labs conducting product torture testing.
“We think of it as a microscope for time,” says Matter. “We just want to help people see how things really work. When you slow things down, you see they often don’t function anything like you supposed. Technically-minded people get that. Our first batch of 60 cameras sold out quickly — one guy is on his third camera. We’re doubling up for our next production run. We’ve identified a need, and now we’re filling it.”
If you are interested in the collision of hardware and software, and other aspects of the convergence of physical and digital worlds, subscribe to the free Solid Newsletter — and to learn more about the Solid Conference coming to San Francisco in May, visit the Solid website.