Eye-Fi links digital cameras to Wi-Fi nets

The Eye-Fi storage card uses clever and sophisticated communications technology to wirelessly transfer images from digital cameras to computers and Internet photo services.

Every now and then you come across a product that is, what’s the word I’m looking for, compelling? intriguing? wWay cool? Today’s topic is a product that is all of those things. It is the $99.95 Eye-Fi Secure Digital (SD) memory card for your camera that has built-in wireless networking. Once configured, the card will log on to your Wi-Fi network and automatically upload images to one of a number of popular photo management tools or storage services such as Flickr and Picasa.

To say this is a cool idea is an understatement – it is a great idea! In this tiny package you have 2GB of flash storage and a wireless system that can log on to secured 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n wireless systems and intelligently transfer data.

A minor digression: The Eye-Fi comes in ridiculously tricky packaging – you pull the tab on one side and the quick start documentation appears as the actual Eye-Fi card pops out from the other side. Must have cost a lot, but why do it? Just when I think I understand marketing . . . . 

Anyway, the card comes with a USB SD card reader. When you plug the Eye-Fi card into the reader and the reader into your Windows (XP or Vista) or OS X (10.4+) machine, the device appears as a removable storage device that contains the installation software and full documentation.

The installation process installs the Eye-Fi Manager you use to configure the card. The architecture of the Eye-Fi system is quite sophisticated, with connections being established and dynamically managed between the card, the Internet-based Eye-Fi servers and the local Manager application. The Manager itself is a Web server that uses your local browser to create the user interface using the open source Dojo Toolkit.

The card communicates with both the locally installed Manager software and the Eye-Fi servers on the Internet, which route all image transfers to the selected photo service. The card can communicate with either endpoint depending on availability and can manage interrupted transmissions (important, as the card can only transfer images when the camera is powered on and within range of a Wi-Fi network).

The Manager communicates with the Internet servers to find out if images have been uploaded by the card from another network or when it wasn’t running. If the Manager finds it has images from the card that aren’t on the photo service it initiates synchronization.

Installers are included for both Windows and OS X. For reasons as yet undetermined, I couldn’t get the Manager to communicate with Firefox under OS X (PPC), but installing under Windows XP worked perfectly.

Many cameras work flawlessly but some, like my wife’s Polaroid t830, have problems. My favorite camera, a Canon EOS 20D, was what I really wanted to use the Eye-Fi with, but it only uses Compact Flash (CF) cards. Of course, adapters that allow SD cards to be used in CF slots are available so I purchased one and it worked!

It is, indeed, way cool to be able take photos and see them magically appear on Picasa with no human intervention. That said, when I first tried the Eye-Fi system using Flickr something wasn’t working at Flickr and the Eye-Fi Manager reported erroneously that Flickr was having a problem with the image format. When I changed to Picasa everything worked flawlessly.

This problem illustrates one of the great challenges of these mash-up applications: Diagnostics and error recovery can be really hard to engineer because of the loosely connected nature of the integration.

If your organization uses photography a lot in its operations the Eye-Fi card could be a productivity boost, particularly for less skilled users who you really don’t want to mess with cables and think too much about the technology they’re using. You might also find the Eye-Fi useful at home.

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