The COOLSCAN: A “personal × digital” realm created by digitalization

No.4 | 1993 | Scanning “digitalization”

In 1993, Nikon unveiled the COOLSCAN, a film scanner that marked the dawn of the digital era. This revolutionary device took and transformed a system previously utilized in journalism, making it compact, lightweight, and affordable. Nikon's innovation provided an accessible means for the general users to bridge the gap between digital and analog realms. Let's explore the backstory of this pioneering step by Nikon.

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

With its compact body, precision mechanics inherited from professional equipment, and the adoption of the then-revolutionary LED technology, encountering the COOLSCAN, which scans photographic film and converts the image to digital data, gives a sensation of being right in the midst of the digital revolution of the early 1990s.

During this era, transferring photos to a computer as data files was not a simple task for many. Prior to the widespread use of digital cameras, the concept of photos as digital “image data” was not as common.

However, the widespread adoption of film scanners like the COOLSCAN greatly broadened the horizons of photography. It not only reduced the size and weight compared to previous models but also made film scanners that can import photos to a computer much more accessible. This development allowed photos captured with film cameras to be converted to digital data for managing and editing on computers, introducing a novel way of using photos for both professionals and general users.

In the following years, Nikon entered the market with a range of digital cameras. The COOLSCAN emerged just before the widespread prevalence of digital cameras, bridging the gap between analog and digital.

Riding the wave of digitalization

In 1984, Nikon developed the NT-1000, a film transmission system for press organizations. It was developed specifically for quickly transferring photos taken at large-scale events such as the Olympics back to headquarters. At that time, press photos were typically taken with film cameras, developed, printed, and then transmitted via telephone lines. The film transmission system streamlined this process by directly scanning and sending the film, significantly reducing the lead time required to turn it into an image in a media news article.

In 1988, Nikon underwent significant organizational changes as it aimed to elevate its digital imaging business to a core position. The Digital Imaging Division within the Camera Business Unit gained independence and was integrated with the printer business of the research center, forming the new Electronic Imaging Division. This unit focused on developing input/output and recording devices centered around image files. It played a pivotal role in shaping various digital devices, including not just film scanners but also video cameras, digital cameras, printers, and many other items of digital equipment that have continued to influence the modern era.

The COOLSCAN can be considered a product that originated at the forefront of Nikon's initiatives to propel digitalization.

Entering the 1990s, there was a swift proliferation of digital technologies for image processing. Simultaneously, there was a rising demand in production companies and advertising agencies to digitize film images for applications in desktop publishing (DTP: performing tasks such as the editing and designing of publications on a computer) and computer graphics (CG). Leveraging the technology from film transmission devices designed for the press, Nikon ventured into creating products for the general public. This endeavor gave rise to the birth of the COOLSCAN.

The fruits of utilizing LED technology

The most significant breakthrough was the incorporation of LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology as the light source. Compared to conventional fluorescent lights or halogen lamps, LEDs reduced heat generation, offered energy efficiency, and contributed to the downsizing of the device. Moreover, their extended lifespan reduced the need for frequent light source replacement.

In particular, the incorporation of blue LEDs was a revolution within the technology of that era. While red and green LEDs were already in widespread use, blue LEDs came into development at a later stage. The introduction of the cutting-edge blue LED enabled full-color scanning using the RGB (red, green, and blue) primary colors, leading to the creation of the COOLSCAN.

The introduction of LED technology had a significant impact, in particular leading to new challenges regarding color reproduction. Initially, due to the characteristics of the spectrum, there was a tendency for data to be created with tones different than with conventional light sources. Subsequent advancements in digital image-processing technology that take spectral characteristics into account greatly contributed to improvement of image quality.

This image-processing technology pioneered in the COOLSCAN has been passed down into modern digital cameras. You might even say that the skills honed during the development of the COOLSCAN played a foundational role in shaping the advancements seen in later digital camera technologies.

Contributions that led to a new era

The COOLSCAN played a significant role in providing a widespread means to convert film photographs into digital data. Its emergence and success contributed to the digitalization of photography prior to the general adoption of digital cameras.

Today, instead of using film, we import image data stored on memory cards into our computers for processing, storage, and sharing. While some employ digital cameras for their shoots, others prefer using only their smartphones. Whatever their choices, they find enjoyment in this whole process. On the other hand, as evident from the current resurgence of interest in film cameras, the value of film is still very much present.

Thanks to successfully taking on the remarkable challenge of incorporating LED technology, the COOLSCAN managed to achieve the desired miniaturization sought by users. And with the digitalization of images, the possibilities for their utilization expanded exponentially. Engineers involved in the COOLSCAN's development described it as a product intended to "bridge the gap between analog and digital." Despite the expansion of the digital world, it's important to remember that the analog world hasn't vanished. The bridge that the COOLSCAN established between digital and analog realms continues to hold value today.

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