Desperately Seeking Saburi: Finding the Camera Phone Creator


Back in July of this year, analyst Jon Peddie was on a mission to find the inventor of the camera phone - an product category that is responsible for a significant portion of the current mobile phone boom. Peddie found the first camera phone, but couldn't identify the precise inventor, and wasn't sure if there even was a single person who could be found. TG Daily picked up where Peddie left off - and got lucky in Japan.

I remember interviewing Sun executives in July of 2000 about the sense and nonsense of squeezing a video camera into a cell phone and using Java to support it. Back then, the notion of having a camera phone had first come to North America. Today they are everywhere, and indeed, it is hard to find a cell phone without a camera. And the cell phone industry has built an entire generation of products around this invention, with no sign of running out of innovations yet. Cameras have been key elements in motivating consumers to upgrade their older phones, with today's phones being replaced at almost twice the rate of five years ago.

The inventors of the first cell phone have been well documented, with Dr. Martin Cooper being recognized by most North American media outlets, and UK-based John Edwards being the favorite in Europe (Edwards claims to have beaten Cooper by a few months). But despite this debate, there is almost no information about who invented the camera phone. Even using Peddie's research, it is tough to say who actually was first to have the idea and who built the first device.

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Kazumi Saburi

Part of the problem is that several people and companies were working on a camera phone in the same time frame and its virtually impossible to single out the single inventor and champion of the mobile phone industry.

But that didn't stop me. I started my search at the point where Peddie left off with the company that developed the first camera phone.

Internet sources, including Wikipedia, typically suggest that it was Sharp's J-SH04 that won the race for the first camera phone. Even if Sharp claims on its website that this was the first mobile phone with an "attached camera," it debuted months after the real first camera phone. The Sharp device was released in November 2000, but, according to Peddie's article published in the July 18 issue of his firm's "Tech Watch", the Samsung Anycall SCH-V200 had been available already in April of 2000.

Peddie, who enlisted the help of more than 2000 people on his search, also mentioned a patent about a "radio telephone in a handheld housing with electro-acoustic transducers behind sound inlets and a video recorder, a video player, and an electronic circuit (...) a wide-angle objective mounted in the front of the housing with the video player" - which was filed by Alcatel already back in 1992. But there is no evidence that this device ever made it into a commercial product.

But the Samsung wasn't the first, by a long shot. In the end, it turned out that the first camera phone was the Kyocera Visual Phone VP-210, which was released in May of 1999 in Japan. Besides the fact that it was known to be the first video-capable cell phone, it also was the first functional camera phone for digital still photos. The device weighed in at a hefty 6 ounces, integrated a 2.0" TFT display capable of displaying 65K colors, could transmit video at two frames per second and had enough memory to store 20 still images. Back then, the VP-210 sold for 40,000 Yen or about $335.

Equipped with this information, I poked into Kyocera's massive Japan operation, in the hope to find the man, woman or group behind the idea of the VP-210. It took several weeks until I was able to find the right contact. But eventually, Masumi Sakurai from Kyocera's PR department at the firm's Kyoto headquarters assisted us and I spoke to Kazumi Saburi.

Saburi led the VP-210 project back in 1997 as section manager of Kyocera's Yokohama research and development center and brought the device from idea to life. Today, Saburi is the manager of the Fifth Engineering Development Department for Mobile Communication Equipment in Kyocera's Corporate Mobile Communication Equipment Group.

Where did Saburi get the idea to build a camera into a cell phone?

"Around that time, cellular handsets with enabled voice and SMS communication capabilities were considered to be just one among many personal communication tools. One day a simple idea hit us - 'What if we were able to enjoy talking with the intended person watching his/her face on the display?' We were certain that such a device would make cell phone communications much more convenient and enjoyable."

So his initial thoughts were centered around a video rather than still cameras, something that is only recently become more popular in phones. "We knew that a handset must be equipped with a camera and a full-color display for visual communications of any kind - the former is required for catching the image of the speaker and the latter for showing it on the receiver's terminal. This pretty much outlines our first idea," he said.