Due to the popularity of my previous post, I'm planning on doing a series of posts on Apple products from the early 2000s. Apple output some of their most interesting work in this era that were truly incredible in their build quality and craftsmanship. The Apple iSight has become a bit of a design icon so it seemed like a good product to follow the iPod mini with.
The iSight was first launched in 2003. To put this product in context, it existed next to the PowerBook G4 Aluminum, iBook G4 and the iMac G4. Because we live in the future, it seems bizarre that you would need an external web-cam but even the iMac G5 in 2004 didn't have one built-in. The iSight used to cost $149 - a hefty price for a webcam but well worth it considering how ugly the competitors looked.
The box. The introduction of iSight coincided with Mac OS X Panther, which introduced iChat AV, bringing video conferencing to iChat. Success of iChat AV depended on the success of iSight, which may be why so much effort was put into this product.
The top of the box highlighting the perforated design.
The outer sleeve slides off, allowing the box to open up in half. I love this approach to packaging as it builds anticipation and presents the product a few steps into the unboxing experience.
Opening the left flap reveals the documentation labeled, "Enjoy".
The documentation is revealed in an origami-like presentation.
The left half of the box contains three mounts for use with the iSight. The thing that surprised me is how the tray holding them is made from styrofoam - something that's nearly impossible to find in consumer electronics packaging today due to environmental concerns.
The right side of the box presents the iSight and its carrying case. Once again, they're nestled in styrofoam.
Underneath the tray containing the iSight itself, you'll find a firewire cable and the cable adapter that allows the iSight to be mounted to its various mounts.
The iSight is one of the first Apple products to use aluminum as it primary housing material. The PowerBook G4 was the first to do so in early 2003 and then the iSight and Power Mac G5 followed suit later that year. The construction methodology is actually quite similar to the iPod mini and this was probably a crucial learning moment that enabled Apple to produce so many iPod minis.
The iSight features a 1/4-inch CCD sensor with a F/2.8 aperture lens and a resolution of 640 x 480. I'm loving the high-fidelity cues given off by the iSight, like the graphics around the lens.
The iSight featured this really cool mechanical privacy shutter that could be opened and closed by twisting the ring around the lens. It moves with a satisfying click and though it doesn't feel quite as precise as something Apple could do today, it was lightyears ahead of its time.
These laser etched circles indicate that the iris is open when lined up. The small dot to the left is an green LED to indicate activity, very much like modern Macs.
The iris was actually more than a privacy feature. In Mac OS X, opening up the iris of the iSight opened up iChat automatically. It's a clever feature that really signifies Apple's hardware/software integration.
The iSight featured dual microphones for noise suppression, not unlike the systems found in iPhones today. In order to sample ambient noise, the two microphones were spread apart, which was the driving factor for the iSight's long shape. It look like a professional piece of equipment which I think it pretty awesome. It's over promising but hey, it's looking sexy while doing it.
The bottom features the iSight's firewire port. The inner chassis is held in place using the two screws shown here. Notice how the aluminum tube is completely seamless without a hidden part line.
The firewire port is mounted on a two-axis hinge, which provides some adjustment to the camera's position. It doesn't move a lot but it's seems to be enough for most set-ups.
The bottom is capped off with a plastic cap, like the iPod mini. This one is more elaborate though, as it is a triple-shot component (clear, white and grey).
What I find truly amazing is how the iSight has been manufactured. There are two incredible things happening here. 1) The aluminum housing is a completely seamless tube. 2) A large majority of the product is covered in perforation. Achieving just one of these is easy, but doing both simultaneously is not. As far as I can tell, Apple has extruded the tube and then added the perforation as a secondary process. It seems rather unbelievable considering the amount of time it would take to perform the latter. The Power Mac G5 and the subsequent Mac Pros had a similar aesthetic but they were relatively simple in comparison to manufacture: the holes could be punched out of an aluminum sheet and then bent.
Another thing worth noting is the absolutely gorgeous finish on the iSight. Judging by the delicate texture, I'm guessing that it's been chemically textured, as apposed to being bead blasted. I would love to see Apple bring this finish back.
Because the iSight was also intended for use with Apple's portable line of Macs, it includes this simple carrying case. Plastic is an odd choice because the iSight ends up constantly scratching the inner surface - terrible for people with OCD like myself.
The first step to using the camera is installing the firewire cable with its iSight mount adapter. It's a little bit fiddly and doesn't seem like something Apple would do today.
As you can see here, the firewire cable adapter fits onto the stand using a simple friction system. The stands and mounts all require you to feed the firewire cable through them, which is once again, a bit tedious and un-Apple like.
Apple includes three different mounts for the iSight. These three cover essentially every scenario from the laptop to the CRT display.
The first mount, which is aesthetically my favorite, is a simple desktop stand. The stand is meant to be left at a stationary position and has an adhesive on its base.
The included instructions state that if you'd prefer, the protective paper covering on adhesive can be left on and used. Seems really inelegant. Including a rubber foot to go over the adhesive would have been nice.
At launch, Apple emphasized iSight's ability to be mounted above the display, from CRT to LCD. When flipped, the desktop stand doubles as a CRT mount. I had originally thought that the clear stand looked out of place but seeing it on my eMac brings sense to the design. The materials work in harmony against the Mac and it adds the much needed feeling of lightness to the rather large iSight.
The second mount is designed for LCD displays or more specifically, the iMac G4. Like the desktop/CRT mount, this one features an adhesive pad for mounting.
Later on, Apple replaced this stand with a magnetic one could snap onto the top of Apple's Cinema Display.
For portable use, Apple includes a laptop (PowerBook and iBook) optimized mount that does away with adhesives. It has a thumbwheel that adjusts the tightness of the grip.
Apple discontinued the iSight in 2006, meaning that it was only in production for 3 years. Makes sense, as computers like the MacBook launched that same year had built-in iSight cameras. Because electronics have become so miniaturized, I feel like we have lost some connection to our devices. I am typing this on my Retina MacBook Pro and my FaceTime camera is nearly invisible and I have no idea where my microphones are located. Today, we don't think about turning on our webcam when we call someone - it's just there. This has put content, and the interactions we have with our computers center stage, but has also made technology more enigmatic. It's a great thing that the devices we use have become less cumbersome and easier to use, but as a lover of objects, I did feel a bit sentimental analyzing the iSight. The iSight's form truly speaks to its function. It looks at you, and when it doesn't, a physical shutter shuts its eye. It listens, and you know for sure because it looks and feels like a microphone. It's a question worth asking - when does magical become obscurity?
Next up: iPod Hi-Fi