The recent press about an upcoming Nikon camera — denoted the "N2014" — highlighted a government registration filing that suggests it will be "equipped with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS)." This has been a positive media development for Nikon as, if correct, it would make them the first camera manufacturer to integrate GNSS into one of their products. Is the camera industry being disingenuous by their slow adoption of existing technologies?
So, what is the fuss all about? The registration and future release of N2014 is potentially the first camera to integrate GNSS. While putting geographic coordinates into image metadata is useful, it has always been a somewhat niche activity. If your work depends upon coordinates being recorded, then having them automatically added is obviously critical and many working professionals — for example, journalists — will have this as a requirement. Cameras have always been complex, high-precision engineering devices that were technical to operate. And as with any complex piece of equipment, there was always continued technical development and increasing integration. This has done nothing but accelerate as a result of in-camera electronics (specifically micro-electronics) and, in particular, the conversion from film to digital.
Integration and miniaturization have been key to the development of the camera, and this is as true for geolocation systems as for other technical improvements. Perhaps counterintuitively, geolocation tagging has been used from the days of film cameras and is still used similarly today. At its simplest, this requires you to manually record coordinates for the location where you shot an image and then, after scanning, add them to the EXIF metadata. Even today, you can still use a similar technique through a semi-automatic process where you record a track using a GNSS receiver and then sync the file (using timestamps of both the images and the track) to the images at which point the coordinates are inserted into the EXIF metadata (for example GPicSync).
This obviously requires the use of an external GPS receiver. Taking this a step further, you can get full automation in one of three ways. Firstly, you can plug a GNSS receiver directly into your camera (if there is external receiver support). For example, the Nikon D1H from 2001 supported a range of Garmin and Magellan GPS receivers via a serial cable. The reason that these weren't integrated was two-fold: they were relatively big and expensive (about $500 in today's money). As size and cost came down, hot shoe mountable versions became available such as the Nikon GP-1. Secondly, you can also use the GNSS receiver you always have in your hand: your phone! Nikon allows you to do this in real-time via its Bluetooth tethering SnapBridge technology. Finally, the manufacturer can build a GNSS receiver into their camera so that this all happens seamlessly and is obviously the ultimate location integration. Nikon finally brought this to its D6, having first introduced it to a DSLR in 2013 with the D5300.
All of this brings us back to the notion of integration: integrating features into a camera is intended to improve its functionality and (often) ergonomics. You can integrate a feature that is not already available, for example, IBIS or Eye-AF, which are either present or they're not. These offer a technological and functional advantage to the manufacturer and should enable it to sell more cameras. Both of these features managed to set Sony apart from its competitors in the early years of its E-mount full frame development and encouraged photographers to jump ship. Then you get integration of features that are initially available via an add-on. Early light meters are often clipped on the hot shoe, showing you the measured aperture and shutter speed combination. GNSS receivers were another add-on that has remained pervasively an add-on, perhaps because manufacturers perceive the additional cost unwarranted for the number of users that actually use the feature. All of this makes the original inclusion on the Nikon D5300 interesting and the late addition to the D6 (and the N2014 which is possibly the Z9) surprising.
Will we see this change? It's difficult to know as cameras with integrated GNSS receivers are hardly widespread at the moment, although the pervasiveness of smartphones possibly means users are used to having their photos geotagged. Whether they knowingly or unknowingly make use of this feature remains to be seen. What is clear is the slow and disinterested development that camera manufacturers have had. While we might use GPS as a general stand-in for geolocation, this specifically refers to the US Global Positioning System. The broader term is GNSS and currently includes three other systems in the form of the Russian GLONASS (launched in 1982), the Chinese BeiDou (launched 2000), and the European Galileo (launched 2011). Receivers that can use signals from two or more of these systems have been around for decades, but it is only more recently that products utilizing all four systems have become available.
By way of comparison, the cycle computer market has — unsurprisingly given their heritage — been dominated by Garmin; however, relative newcomers Bryton have rapidly prototyped and brought to market a range of products. Their first four-network GNSS device was the Rider 410 in 2018, while Garmin currently has three-network devices available. Yet, here we are in 2021 with no integrated GNSS cameras available and only one mooted. Quite clearly, a cycle computer is not as complex as a modern camera. In fact, it really is only a GNSS chipset with Bluetooth transceiver and data logging firmware, sometimes incorporating real-time maps. The small size and low price tag suggest that GNSS has become entry-level, so the lack of add-on or integrated units is disappointing. Maybe it's the relatively long product life cycle of cameras compared to other electronic devices that means integrated circuits need to be sourced for longer periods of time and are much harder to swap out. Or that it is a low-demand feature. Or maybe camera manufacturers really don't care about functionality that is not central to image capture. That the slow take-up has garnered Nikon applause suggests that customers are used to this state of affairs. Nikon should be noted for developing this part of the market, but it is hardly being innovative. Camera manufacturers should beware as the smartphone onslaught has laid down a gauntlet and simply taking better pictures is not enough. More than ever, manufacturers need to differentiate their products, not lag behind. They need to step up to the plate.