Aki Murata, Chief Operating Officer of OM Digital Solutions (OMDS), formerly Olympus.
In the latest in our series of socially distanced interviews with senior executives across the consumer digital imaging industry, we sat down (virtually) with Aki Murata, Chief Operating Officer of OM Digital Solutions (OMDS). In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Murata updated us on the transition from Olympus to OMDS, the future of the Olympus brand, and why he believes that Four Thirds still has advantages over other sensor formats.

What would you say is the biggest challenge faced by OM Digital Solutions (OMDS) in 2021, and how do you plan to address it?

We announced the carving out of the camera division from Olympus last June, and I think a lot of people were worried that it meant Olympus cameras would be different in the future, or our R&D philosophy or our product roadmap would change. I would like to state, once again, that we decided to split off from Olympus, which is a big medical company, in order to better manage our business and do what’s best for our camera customers. In this new company, OMDS, we have senior leaders in place who will bring fresh perspectives to company challenges, and this is a perfect start for a new chapter in the 85-year history of Olympus cameras.
The challenge is proving it. I can say whatever I like, but people need to be able to believe it. Not only existing Olympus users, but non-Olympus and non-Micro Four Thirds photographers. We need to make those users realize that they can invest in our system with confidence. The best way to do that is by introducing innovative products, and I can confirm that will be an exciting product announcement from OMDS later in 2021. I think that will put a lot of people’s minds at rest.
Our Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Setsuya Kataoka gave an interview in February where he mentioned new products, and today I can confirm that the announcement will be this year.
Can you provide any more details about the nature of that announcement?

I can’t, I’m sorry, but I can say that our focus will continue to be on Micro Four Thirds, and on mid to high-end products.
The Olympus Tough range of compact cameras has consistently sold well, even in the context of broad declines in the compact camera market following the mass-adoption of smartphones.
What do you see as the single biggest unaddressed need right now in the consumer DI market?

In the compact camera space, there is a need for features that differentiate those products from currently available smartphones. The types of cameras suitable for specialized purposes, such as action cameras and cameras for 360-degree imaging is increasing. Our Tough series offers durability, with very strong water resistance, and very good macro shooting modes. That range is appreciated very much by divers, casual beach photographers and nature macro shooters. We believe that by listening carefully to the needs of users who are working in highly specialized fields, we have the opportunity to meet those needs, and we’ll continue to do this.
So there will continue to be a place in your lineup for the Tough compact range?

Yes absolutely. If they were just waterproof cameras, I don’t think there would necessarily be a market for them. There are already waterproof smartphones, so what would be the difference? But as I said, we developed the Tough cameras to cater for certain types of users, with specific needs. And as long as we continue to develop upon that, there is always a market there.
Is there potential for OMDS to expand into other market segments, like 360-degree imaging as you just mentioned?

I cannot really talk about this in any detail, but I can say that we’re more flexible now, compared to when we were a part of Olympus. So we look at users, and we look at our technologies, and then when we see them crossing over, that’s a market we know we should be in. So we’re always looking at what customers are asking for.
In your opinion, what can dedicated camera manufacturers do to compete with smartphones?

That’s a question that we ask a lot, and discuss frequently, internally. We don’t really see a need to compete with smartphones, because smartphones are different devices, with different characteristics. And one of the important differentiators of interchangeable lens cameras is lenses. A wide variety of lenses with high optical quality, that make it possible to capture the best moments in various shooting situations. This is the reason why interchangeable lens cameras exist. A smartphone will never be able to capture a fast-moving bird, for example, from a great distance.
In other words, if a manufacturer can’t offer camera products with features that clearly differentiate them from smartphones, they’d be in trouble. We will continue to develop a system necessary to allow photographers to best capture moments, with maximum portability, with our Micro Four Thirds lineup. And we’ll focus on the areas where smartphones can’t compete, and can’t provide a benefit for photographers.
The size of the Four Thirds sensor offers the possibility of fast readout speeds, which makes this format ideal for computational imaging
We believe that it’s important to maximize the power of image sensors, and processors and image stabilization, but at the same time in order to maximize the power of those devices we have to use computational photography technologies like AI and other computational imaging technologies to expand the possibilities for capturing the moment. I think that combination will make our cameras more attractive.
The size of the Four Thirds sensor offers the possibility of fast readout speeds, which makes this format ideal for computational imaging. Conventionally, the evolution of hardware is an important factor for all cameras, but we believe that by utilizing the right hardware, and the right software together, via computational photography technologies, this will make the system more attractive to consumers and deliver shooting experiences that would otherwise not be possible, with hardware developments alone.
The handheld high-res shot mode in the E-M1 Mark III is one example, but we’re really going to continue to try to use these technologies to provide something new in the market.
The Olympus OM-D E-M1X is the biggest and most expensive M43 stills camera, but it's still less than a third of the cost of a professional DSLR or mirrorless equivalents like the Sony a1.
How have your users responded to the computational photography features that you’ve included in your cameras so far?

We just talked about the handheld high res shot mode, which allows users to take pictures in higher resolution with less noise, without a tripod. During our customer research, we found that many of our E-M1 Mark III users were interested in that camera specifically because of these features. New users, coming into our system because of those features.
We believe that people are beginning to understand the value of Micro Four Thirds cameras for their ability to deliver similar image quality to larger sensors, but in a smaller, lighter system. We’re constantly looking for new areas where we can combine our hardware with computational technologies and I really believe that we can show further development in the near future.
Do you think that computational technologies could be employed in the development of video features, in future, as well as stills?

Yes. I cannot say exactly where, but we are looking a lot of different aspects and possibilities. I’m sure we’ll be able to introduce many more interesting features.
Do technologies like Stacked CMOS, which we’re increasingly seeing implemented in full-frame sensors, undermine the theoretical small sensor advantage, or could such technologies also be utilized in 4/3?

While we cannot provide information on specific plans for the future, it is possible for us to consider technologies like Stacked CMOS. We are always looking to maximize the potential of the Micro Four Thirds standard by developing and utilizing the latest technology. With our compact and lightweight systems, we will do what it takes to expand capabilities and provide the best imaging experience for the customer.
The Stacked CMOS sensor in the Sony a1 allows for ultra-fast shooting and high-resolution, nullifying some of the traditional 'small sensor' advantage. But it does so at a considerable cost. It's interesting to imagine the features that might be made possible if Sony were to introduce stacked CMOS technology into its next-generation of 4/3 sensors.
Is there a practical limit to resolution in the 4/3 sensor format? At what stage do more pixels stop being useful?

The Micro Four Thirds system is not limited to 20 Megapixels. Our Pro lenses have excellent resolution and performance, enough to work well even with a 100 Megapixel sensor. However, increasing number of megapixels significantly impacts processing speeds and high ISO image quality. There is also a risk of function and feature limitations. Therefore, we carefully consider the best balance of resolution, image quality, performance and price, always with the best interests of the customer in mind.
Olympus is still seen as a fairly stills photography-focused company, what is your video strategy in general?

Still imagery is very important for us, but we’re not disregarding video. I can’t give you any specifics about the development of future video technologies but I believe that while it’s embraced by a lot of users, there are still some barriers to high-quality video recording with interchangeable lens cameras.
I’d like to address those barriers. One of them is image stabilization. Many casual video shooters don’t have gimbals, for example, and they need an all in one system package that allows them to shoot high quality video straight out of the box. That’s something we’d really want to achieve, and that’s a bit different to some other manufacturers. For example Panasonic, they have very good video-specific products, but we really want to create that all-in-one package. We believe that we can contribute to improving video capture by offering a portable system with strong image stabilization and a video-dedicated AF system. For more advanced users we’d like to provide solutions to improve workflow, such as our recent announcement of Apple ProRes Raw recording compatibility with the Atomos Ninja.
The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm F4.5 TC 1.25x IS PRO is designed for sports and wildlife photographers, and provides the ability to shoot at 1,000mm (equiv.) without a tripod. It's proven a hit with M43 fans, to the extent that OMDS is struggling to catch up with backorders.
Do you have a target date for general availability of the 150-400mm F4.5 TC 1.25x IS PRO?

I couldn’t believe the number of preorders we received for the 150-400mm. It exceeded our expectations by far, globally. Usually for lenses of that kind, initial demand is very high, and then it drops in the months afterward, but looking at demand for this lens, it hasn’t stopped. That’s good, and we’re very happy, but we’re sorry for our users who have to wait. This lens is built in Japan and we’re very careful to make sure that the quality is very good.
That zoom lens covers up to 1000mm in 35mm terms, but with high resolution and high performance in a compact body. That’s the reason why we’ve seen such a high demand. The biggest selling point is handheld shooting. That’s the most appealing thing for birding and wildlife shooters, they can work handheld without sacrificing image quality. So the lens was highly anticipated by pro photographers all over the world, and sales have exceeded all our expectations.
It takes a lot of time just to make one lens, so unfortunately I can’t say right now when the lens will be available more generally. Our production facilities are working at full capacity to catch up with demand.
The 150-400mm is aimed at high-end and professional users, and you’ve specifically mentioned wildlife photographers - is that your most important customer demographic at the moment?

We prefer not to differentiate photographers by their level of experience. We offer a lineup of products from entry-level to high-end, but we don’t develop products only for specific types of customers. Our system offers a clear advantage in terms of size and weight, and we believe that our I.S. system is one of the best on the market, so any photographers who value size and portability are our ideal customers. We don’t differentiate. We’ll continue to invest in products that provide quality and portability. So for any photographer who’s going out with a lot of equipment will enjoy the benefits of our system.
How much longer do you think there will be a market for entry-level ILCs like the OM-D E-M10 IV?

I think that the entry-level line will always exist, unless people lose interest in photography, and I don’t think that will happen. The only questions are how entry-level is defined, and what features do people expect to see in those cameras? The more that smartphones camera features evolve, the smaller the gap will become between phones and current entry-level cameras will become. And when that happens, our definition of entry-level in the camera market may need to change.
In the past, the term ‘entry-level’ was used to describe any easy to use camera which delivered good picture quality but the pictures from smartphones aren’t bad, if you just want something for casual and everyday use. And if the smartphone takes over that role, then they’ll become the entry-point to the world of photography. The hallmark for all camera manufacturers, not just us, is to understand the needs of customers and introduce products that encourage more people to take up photography as a hobby.
Mr. Murata claims that he doesn't differentiate customers by their ability-level, which helps explain why even 'entry-level' cameras like the OM-D E-M10 IV are packed with features and menu options which might go over the heads of a lot of beginners. In the future, Mr. Murata believes, as smartphones become the default 'first camera' for a lot of photographers, low-end and entry-level ILCs may become more costly, and even more advanced.
So do you think that what we currently call the ‘entry-level’ class will evolve to become more advanced, and more expensive?

Yes, that’s definitely one possibility.
When you’re thinking about future product development, which areas are you most focused on improving or developing?

I’m thinking about how I can give you a meaningful answer without giving you details! I can confirm that we want to exploit the full potential of the Four Thirds sensor format, and we believe that having a smaller sensor is an advantage for us. People still believe that it’s a disadvantage, but this is simply not true. Technology will develop, and the physical disadvantages of smaller sensors will be eliminated in future. Once this happens, the last variables will be the size and weight of the hardware. And that’s where we have a big advantage with the Micro Four Thirds system. We’ll continue to develop products and technologies that will change the perception of smaller sensors. I can’t wait to hear people one day saying ‘I thought having a small sensor was a disadvantage’.
Of the projects that you’re working on, to what extent are you working from customer demand, versus the potential of the technologies available to you?

It’s hard to provide a very clear answer to that question, but we’re always looking at both customer demands and the development of our technologies. Which one comes first depends on the feature. It’s hard for customers to express needs for features when perhaps those features, and the technology, don’t currently exist in the market. But on the other hand, just because we have the technology, we cannot develop a new feature without thinking about the needs of the customer. For us, the solution is to develop features that cater to the experiences and needs of our customers, and expand their shooting opportunities.
The past 12 months has spanned a global pandemic and the sale of the Olympus camera division. How has your team been affected, and how have you had to adjust?

We didn’t have a lot of supply chain issues, but as a result of COVID-19 we’ve seen a lot of travel restrictions and delays, and that has impacted the entire camera market quite a bit. We’ve been controlling our supply very carefully, and monitoring market conditions, but the good news is that our team adapted quickly using a lot of creativity. We’ve created new initiatives like ‘Home with Olympus’ and using Facebook Live instead of in-person events. We believe that market conditions are beginning to improve and we’re developing new products to meet customer demands as the market recovers after COVID-19.
As a result of the pandemic we’ve seen more people enjoying what we call ‘local adventures’ with their cameras, for example macro lenses are more popular than ever, likewise sales of tele lenses like 75-300mm and 100-400mm are continuously increasing. And of course more people have been using their cameras for meetings and virtual gatherings, like happy hours. We recently released the beta version of our webcam software to meet this demand.
Some of the advisers that we’ve worked with during the process of the transition to OMDS have told us that this is one of the smoothest transitions they’ve ever seen
As Olympus / OMDS, we’ve had an interesting year with the pandemic and the sale of the camera division, and I’m very proud of how the team has adjusted during a difficult time. Some of the advisers that we’ve worked with during the process of the transition to OMDS have told us that this is one of the smoothest transitions they’ve ever seen, and I think the team has done a great job making that happen. The reason is that we had trust in the brand and the company. Just like our customers, when we first heard about the planned sale, we had some worries early on about what would happen, but very quickly we realized that we weren’t talking about a change of company, just a change of ownership. And this is a change which will bring better results for our users, and it’s good for us and good for them.
I’d also like to express my appreciation to all the frontline workers for their acts of bravery and selflessness during the pandemic. It’s been a very difficult time and we’ve really learned how meaningful pictures can be over the past year.
What does the Olympus brand stand for today, in your opinion?

I believe that Olympus as a camera brand represents tradition and excellent quality. Olympus also has a history of leading innovations and development, and introducing many ‘world’s first’ features. Our job is to continue to develop innovative and market-leading products with the spirit of a startup, but backed up with our history and our positive reputation, and our brand heritage. That’s something we tell the team internally, as well. We are excited to continue to build the brand.
Has your product development roadmap changed as a result of the transition to OMDS?

No, our development plan has not been affected at all. We’ll continue to deliver new products to our customers as planned. No change.

Editor's note: Barnaby Britton

For all of the doom and gloom in comments and even some editorial coverage (not, I hasten to add, on DPReview) it seems that the team at OM Digital Solutions is going into 2021 with a marked sense of confidence, both in their leadership, and in the strength of the Olympus brand. Mr. Murata embodies this confidence, but I've heard similar statements from several current OMDS employees this year who have made the transition from Olympus.
'No change' is the message, and, with new products confirmed to be on the way in the coming months, everything looks to be going to plan. The most immediate problem facing Mr. Murata and his team appears to be the difficulty in fulfilling orders for the 150-400mm tele-zoom, which has been backordered almost since the day it was announced. Arguably that's a good problem to have, but I get the impression that so early in its corporate existence, it's also a slightly embarrassing one for OMDS.
While Mr. Murata prefers not to differentiate customers by their expertise level, he tells us that his team's focus will continue to be on mid-range and high-end products. In past interviews, he has specifically identified sports and wildlife photographers as an important constituency of customers, and one that benefits from what he sees as the unique value proposition offered by Micro Four Thirds. It's these kinds of photographers to whom the 150-400mm is aimed, alongside cameras like the OM-D E-M1 Mark III and the flagship E-M1X.
So what is the unique value proposition of Micro Four Thirds? Representatives of Olympus and Panasonic have been saying the same thing for years: high performance (especially when it comes to speed) in a small, affordable and lightweight package. The downsides of the smaller sensor format compared to APS-C and full-frame chiefly relate to image quality, but Mr. Murata is confident that technology will be developed to reduce the size of that gap to the point where it will no longer be a major determinant factor for photographers.
The 20MP E-M1X can shoot at up to 18 fps with AF tracking, which is really fast, but it's slower than the 50MP Sony a1, which tops out at 30 fps.
The question is whether advances in full-frame sensor technology, like Stacked CMOS, will in the meantime nullify the technical advantages of M43 in terms of speed. With cameras like Sony's a1 (and potentially Nikon's forthcoming Z9) offering a lot more pixels, a lot more dynamic range, and usefully fast maximum capture rates, the 'small sensor speed advantage' is becoming less clear,
Arguably, we're already at this point, at least from a technical perspective: The 20MP E-M1X can shoot at up to 18 fps with AF tracking, which is really fast, but it's slower than the 50MP Sony a1, which tops out at 30 fps. The elephant in the room, of course, is cost. For the price of one Sony a1, you could buy three E-M1X bodies, and still have a few hundred dollars left over. A Stacked CMOS 4/3 sensor might be capable of extraordinary speeds, but until or unless such a thing is developed, it's impossible to know what it might look like (or how much it might affect the final cost to photographers).
For now though, Mr. Murata has faith in computational photography technologies (and it's a justified faith, looking at its success in smartphones), and in the value and potential of the Olympus brand. Mr. Murata's talk of being 'more agile' following the move away from the parent company is revealing, and very encouraging, coming alongside his obvious excitement about technology and his mention of the company operating with 'the spirit of a startup'. Olympus might be among the oldest brands in photography, but it's also consistently one of the most innovative, and it's good to see that this approach is continuing.
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