A recruiting ad asking for a "developer of a new generation digital camera" was the springboard for me to move to Ricoh. It sounded interesting. In my previous job at an optical component manufacturer, I was in tasked with optical design of the inspection cameras for factory automation (FA), or compact cameras. I answered the ad and applied at Ricoh as I wanted to challenge something new. It was after joining Ricoh that I learned the "new generation digital camera" was RICOH THETA.
For about the first half year I was doing a market probe on a fully spherical imaging device. I was sometimes investigating information on a product equipped with an ultra-wide angle camera, or disassembling a commercial celestial-sphere camera or flying a small-scale helicopter controlled by a smart phone (*1) on the roof of the office building, which may look as if I was just playing around by people who saw me. But all the members were serious. We were seriously playing. We argued with each other every day on what kind of product it should be, losing track of time; we frequently rolled into the Japanese-style pub near the workplace, always bringing our play quests with us.
My role was optical design. Only several optical designers were there in my assigned post; the boss, also young in his mid-thirties, told me "Do things your way!" At that time, RICOH THETA comprised only the concept to be "an ultra-compact camera that can easily shoot a view of 360 degrees of wholly-celestial spheres. " There were, however, no means defined as to how to achieve it and all were left in a vacuum. That’s probably why the boss told us to do it our way. I think it was the same for all members charged with software, electrical, mechanical, and other in this project. Many of them joined Ricoh from other jobs.
RICOH THETA, at the time of release and presently as well, is the-world smallest fully spherical imaging device (*2) as a consumer product. From the conceptual phase, we aimed at a camera that would fit into a shirt pocket. Although I knew this would be very difficult, I never considered giving up. I believe this applied to all of us, with the implicit assumption that: It's worth developing precisely because of its size; if we can’t meet that size, we might as well stop. When we presented an achievable size on the optical design, numerically, it was pointed out that "it is still large;" we were asked to make it "thinner" and "smaller." A lot of continuous calling went on.
It was because of this restriction on size that we made a camera of twin lens configuration. Because a 240 degree angle of view pushes the limit of a single eye configuration, multiple cameras are needed. Joining multiple images using process software generates a 360-degree fully spherical image. Depending on the number of cameras, structure becomes more complicated, size increases and image processing difficulty increases. Consequently, we chose a twin-lens configuration using 180-degree plus fish-eye lenses. However, we still didn't meet our target size. The distance required for straight symmetrical collocation of twin lenses is 60 mm, so when I reported that to the project leader, he simply said "it's too thick!" I considered him the devil – What a bloodless guy! (Smile).
To tell the truth, I had a solution in the back of my mind. The method is called the inflection optical method to deflect incident light and guide it to an imaging sensor. I felt sure this could put the distance of twin lenses closer to 20 mm. However, because severe parallax (*3) adjustment is required for this method, it is generally regarded as unsuitable for mass-production, and because flection parts (prism) are also required, cost increases. Beyond that, I was hesitant to propose a method involving many risks as I had less than a year of experience in the company and worried about being judged cheeky; so I did not bring it up.
However, during a heated discussion in a Japanese-style pub, downsizing an optical system became the central topic. I spoke up: "I'm not saying I can't do it" and explained the inflection optical method, also including the risk. When I finished, the members encouraged me: "Let's try it" and said "if it’s found useless, let's think it over again." We decided to adopt the method on the spot. Be free from constraints. It was the moment I became convinced that I could overcome any adversities with these members.
Although I was the one who brought it up, the design of the twin-lens inflection fish eye optical system was very, very difficult. To learn how difficult it was, please look over the article (Spherical Imaging Device /Ricoh Technologies) currently open to the public on Ricoh’s site. It was miraculous that we could achieve an image with almost no parallax and with uniform resolution using the twin-lens inflection fish eye optical system. For this, I greatly appreciate the advice and help from software, electrical, mechanical and other designers. The optical system of RICOH THETA received "the 17th Optical Design Incentive Award" (*4) at the Optical Society of Japan this year, but I assume the award belongs to all members of the project.
My job of those days was not only the development of RICOH THETA. I was also charged with the optical design of cameras for industrial markets and also with building the platform. That continues today, and we now provide optical modules for factory automation, car-mounted view cameras and the like through Ricoh Industrial Solutions, a new company established in October 2014. Although Ricoh has always developed business centering on office automation (OA), it will expand efforts to factory automation (FA) from now on. I enjoyed developing products of different markets for consumers and for industries, and feel that this broad approach increased my competency as an engineer.
On the subject of competency, development members were charged not only with development but participated through commercial production of RICOH THETA. There was a reason for this. Primarily, my job is to take charge of element development and, when the basic specifications are completed, turn the rest over to the business division for commercialization. However, on my business trip for a design meeting on industrial cameras at the end of summer 2012, I was contacted on my cellular phone from a member of RICOH THETA, saying: "We are assigned also to promote the project through commercialization on our own.” The member said that the business division is hesitating because our design is too novel. He resolved the problem by telling himself "Fine then, let's try it ourselves!" When I immediately responded "Impossible", he said "We have been doing the impossible so far, so what is the big deal! It's too late to say impossible now!" Although I understood our project to be full of fearless people, I didn't imagine it had gone that far! (Smile). There is no other way than to do it.
For seven to eight months after deciding we would do it ourselves, the development job site got into a real mess. Although there was a continuation of unfamiliar tasks such as of purchasing components, etc. I think everybody was enjoying it, looking back now. I also experienced a problem with the lens coating (*5), shortly before mass-production, forcing me to chase a remedy. I was able to solve the problem by changing specifications to a higher quality coating. Although cost was a little higher, my decision not to compromise image quality was kept. This coating also positively affected appearance of the lens, allowing us to beautify external appearance without discoloration from any viewing angle. This put a touch of high-class to the RICOH THETA casing main body, which became the center of attention when the camera was released; we were also able to stick to our design objectives for the lens.
Mass-production started in early May 2013. The production line was placed at a corner of the production base (Hanamaki city, Iwate pref.) of the Ricoh Optical Industries Co., Ltd. (at that time). The production line was also fabricated by the development members themselves. This may be a first at Ricoh. Release was in September of the same year. It was announced at the International Consumer Electronics Show (IFA) held in Germany. In the meantime, activities in Hanamaki increased for about four months. Ultimately we were able to release RICOH THETA, produced by our own hands, to the whole world on September 13.
After release, I received a call from my boss at the previous company, asking: "are you the one who made that?" "I was," I replied with pride and confidence. I think this is a sense of achievement I could experience only at Ricoh, who can offer products of its own brand. I'm overwhelmed with gratitude to Ricoh, who entrusted me, a newcomer of only two years and a half after job change, to have the chance of such an experience. Beyond that, I realized that I have grown one or two levels through this work.
Although I said I was worried a little at the beginning, while engaged in the development of RICOH THETA, or the industrial camera, etc. after that, I came to realize that I didn't need to be concerned and that a positive attitude to propose and move regardless of age, career, or position is required at Ricoh. There are things to be noticed and changed merely through experiencing a different corporate culture. I feel the need to approach development with a fresh and different frame of mind and viewpoint once again. I believe the company also expects me to do that.
Issei Abe, Group Leader
Photonics Research Center
Ricoh Institute of Technology
Why do we develop technologies? It is a theme we must always consider as forward thinkers who work in a Research Institute. My answer after thinking is "We do it to create value."
The development of RICOH THETA, which Mr. Satoh headed, clearly reminded me of that. How can we achieve the concept of a wholly-celestial sphere to yield new value in a consumer camera – and enable the customer to experience that value? Mr. Satoh, an optical engineer who manipulates light, achieved that value excellently.
An engineer's goal is to create value rather than merely achieve the results of technical development. It is a challenge in the uncultivated field beyond personal experience, and we need courage to step into the unknown. While members who enjoy the challenge assemble, thank each other, and express mutual praise, value creation increases exponentially. It is this soil here at Ricoh that nurtures the creation of value.
We manipulate light freely and continue creating value beyond the imagination. We seriously imagine a future that nobody has seen and are challenging that future every day. We are Ricoh, the value creating company.
Ricoh Institute of Technology, Photonics Research Center
A graduate of Department of Optics, Faculty of Technology
Joined Ricoh in 2011 after working at an optical component manufacturer. Assigned to optical designs, starting with the world's first ultra-compact fully spherical imaging device "RICOH THETA," an industrial camera, and the modules for advanced driver assistance systems, etc. A pure-hearted engineer who says, "I enjoy gardening in my small yard on days off."