The COOLPIX 300: Pursuing the
technological possibilities of a multimedia recorder

No.2 | 1997 | Seeing the “possibilities”

Towards the end of the 20th century, during what is regarded as the internet boom, a unique digital camera equipped with a touch pen and recording function was released. This was the Nikon COOLPIX 300.
Behind this product created in an age of digitalization, were the dreams of engineers of the Nikon Electronic Imaging Planning Section, who love innovating new ideas.

Contents supervisor: WIRED JAPAN, Japanese text: Shinya Yashiro, Photography: Junpei Kato

A retractable touch pen that can be stored in the main body, a sliding cover to protect the LCD screen, a touch panel that allows users to hand-draw on photos, and a recording function using a built-in microphone… When you touch the COOLPIX 300, the fascinating features that stirred the hearts of gadget lovers everywhere bring back memories from over 20 years ago.

For example, the memory is not far removed from that of mobile phones known as “flip phones” (or “Galapagos phones” in Japan), which were widely adopted before the sleek, slate-shaped devices now called “smartphones” became popular. The word “Galapagos” as used in Japan also includes the meaning of an ecosystem that has faced extinction due to external factors. That said, the diverse ways of evolution at that time gave many users a sense of a dream made possible via technology.

Chasing possibilities freely

The COOLPIX 300, released in 1997, was Nikon’s second compact-type digital camera. Nikon’s Electronic Imaging Planning Section, which manufactured PC peripheral devices such as photo printers and film scanners, was in charge of development. As is clear from the fact that their first product, the COOLPIX 100, was equipped with a mechanism that could be inserted directly into a PC card slot, they were developing a device compatible with a computer rather than a digital camera specialized for photography. (The COOLPIX 300 transferred data via SCSI which was an interface standard for connecting peripheral devices and computers at the time, or serial cable.)

The COOLPIX 300 also had the project name “Multimedia Recorder”, and its development began as a product that could handle not only images but also hand-drawn notes and audio data. When development began in 1995, a major U.S. software vendor released an OS for consumer use, which was a huge hit. The “Internet boom” was just around the corner.

The trend of “digitalization” was just beginning to take off around the world. Nikon staff members who loved new innovations gathered together and explored the many possibilities of potential devices. The fruit of all this was the COOLPIX 300.

After committing to the project, the development became difficult to make progress on. The development period was extended to one year longer than originally planned, taking a total of nearly two years. Because they aimed to create a system that could freely combine three kinds of data; photographed images, recorded audio, and hand-drawn notes, it made the processing much more complex. As a result of pursuing a “multimedia recorder”, the company tried to provide users with flexible usage methods such as “Adding a hand-drawn note after shooting, and then attaching the recorded data”, or “After creating the recorded data, taking a picture, and then adding a hand-drawn note”.

Experiences transformed by digital technology

If you looked at the product brochure used for international markets at the time, you would see that it was named a “Personal Imaging Assistant”, and expected users were businesspeople who travel around the world. The name described the ideal state of a device that would digitally transform, in today’s terms, the process of “taking a photo with a camera, developing it, adding a note to it, and faxing it”.

The vertical shape that you don’t see often in a digital camera was chosen because it was designed to be used for taking notes with a pen. On the other hand, in addition to the lens, there is an optical viewfinder and a flash strobe (Nikon calls it a Speedlight) on the top of the device, giving a sense of pride as a camera manufacturer.

In actual use, pictures could be taken with a feeling similar to that of a general compact digital camera or smartphone, including how to get a sense of distance from the subject. Although it was developed as a multimedia recorder, it was surprising how well it worked as a camera. The experience of taking pictures and writing on them is more fun than you might imagine (except, in the current sense, aside from the slow recording speed to the in-camera memory). It’s no exaggeration to say that you can feel a sense of the elation that development staff must have experienced at the time by incorporating their favorite technologies into this device.

What is ahead for interactive developments?

After developing the COOLPIX 300, some staff members of the Electronic Imaging Planning Section were transferred to the “TOP Project”, which was a company-wide project developing an advanced digital camera. The project was launched to keep up with the wave of digitalization, and developed products one after another that are linked to today’s digital cameras such as the COOLPIX 900 (1998) which was a big hit with its swivel design (twisting the imaging portion), and Nikon’s first original digital SLR camera, the D1 (1999).

On the other hand, many of the technologies packed into the COOLPIX 300 such as recording an image and adding hand-drawn notes, were not actually inherited by subsequent products. Regardless of this, the passions of the engineers who created such innovations will never disappear. What can technologies achieve? This attitude of pursuing infinite possibilities and a frontier spirit which is rooted in a culture that affirms challenges is a legacy of such groundbreaking products as the Nikon COOLPIX 300.

Contents supervisor: WIRED JAPAN, Japanese text: Shinya Yashiro, Photography: Junpei Kato