It’s an interchangeable lens camera, Jim, but not as we know it. Ricoh messes with our minds with an… er, interchangeable camera camera. Report by Paul Burrows.
In the digital camera pond Ricoh is a minnow swimming around with some pretty big fish. The company itself is big enough – big enough, in fact, to own its own rugby team in Japan and sponsor some major sporting events – but the camera division is titchy. So they do things to get themselves noticed… and they’re certainly not afraid to do things differently. Very differently. This is why Ricoh has dreamed up the GXR. Put simply, it’s an interchangeable lens compact camera to rival Olympus’s Digital Pens and Panasonic’s Lumix GF1, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Essentially, what Ricoh has come up with is a system which takes the emphasis off the body as a digital camera’s ‘central nervous system’ and instead marries the lenses with a dedicated sensor and processor. The more you look at this concept, the more you start to appreciate just how clever it is, but it does require you to step outside the traditional notions of what an interchangeable lens camera should be. Mind you, it doesn’t help that Ricoh is calling the GXR system’s lens-and-sensor modules “camera units” which can start to make life very confusing indeed. We’re going to stick with calling them lens modules and then it will all start to make sense... a great deal of sense.
By combining the lens and the sensor, Ricoh is able to match them precisely in terms of the former’s optical characteristics and the latter’s size. So the GXR isn’t locked into a sensor format... it can be whatever works best with the lens and, right at the start, Ricoh is already using two different sizes... one is ‘APS-C’ and the other is the same imager that’s in the GR Digital III. The company isn’t ruling out having a lens module with a 35mm-sized sensor. In this regard, it can do whatever it likes; if there’s a whole new sensor technology in the future, the GXR system can adopt it. At the other end, the camera is also more easily upgradable because you’re no longer throwing away all the expensive digital gubbins.
Right now, the GXR body looks like a traditional compact – well, actually it doesn’t, but you know what we’re trying to say – but Ricoh could make a D-SLR style camera with a built-in EVF if it so desired, or even an HDV camcorder. In reality, it’s unlikely to do either, but it now has the potential to introduce radically different camera platforms without trashing the rest of the system. Quite simply, the GXR is amazingly future-proof, front and back. Of course, upgrades are still going to cost you money, but the traditional restrictions on what’s realistic or practical to change are no longer there.
Minolta dabbled with a similar idea back in the early days of digital compact cameras. The Dimâge EX could be fitted with either a zoom module (with a 38-115mm equivalent lens) or a wide-angle module (28mm equivalent) and both contained its own CCD sensor, although they were exactly the same 1.5 megapixels device. Minolta was trying to address a limitation (i.e. lens focal range) that was ultimately more easily solved through developments in optical engineering, but what Ricoh wants to do is get around the rather-less-easily by-passed constraints of sensor type, size and resolution.
Minus a lens module, the GXR body looks a bit weird, at least from the front where there’s a big chunk of nothingness… with a handgrip. Around the back some normalcy returns because here there’s a big LCD monitor screen and a bunch of familiar-looking controls.
At the heart of the system is a 68-pin data bus connector which performs the electronic hookup. The physical connection is a set of rails which Ricoh freely admits was the hardest part of the system to design because of the need for it to be totally goof-proof and extremely durable. In the end, the designers came up with a channel-and-rail arrangement using a heavy-duty metal plate on the back of the lens modules and locating lugs and guide rails actually cast into the magnesium 37 ON TRIAL The VF-2 plugs into a connection behind the hot shoe and has built-in eyepiece strength adjustment. It also tilts to allow for easier low-level shooting. Minus a lens module, the GXR body looks a bit weird, at least from the front where there’s a big chunk of nothingness… with a handgrip. Around the back some normalcy returns because here there’s a big LCD monitor screen and a bunch of familiar-looking controls. At the heart of the system is a 68-pin databus connector which performs the electronic hookup. The physical connection is a set of rails which Ricoh freely admits was the hardest part of the system to design because of the need for it to be totally goof-proof and extremely durable. In the end, the designers came up with a channel-andrail arrangement using a heavy-duty metal plate on the back of the lens modules and locating lugs and guide rails actually cast into the magnesium alloy bodyshell. Consequently, there’s only one way the lens modules will slide on and you just can’t get it wrong even if you try. Furthermore, the connectors on the lens modules ‘float’ so they aren’t mechanically stressed. Takashi Hongoh, who headed up the GXR project team, says the mounting system was tested to destruction, except that it never broke. “We’re still trying,” he laughs. He does concede, however, that a lot of dust or moisture could be problematic for the data-bus connectors, but if the normal lens-off capping practices are followed then the risk is very small. In this case, though, the ‘caps’ are actually clip-on covers which are provided for both ‘ends’ and when a lens module is fitted the connection is completely shielded, but the GXR isn’t designed to be a weather-proof camera. Of course, dust on the sensor isn’t a problem as the lens modules are all completely sealed (so the rear lens elements are protected too).