Millions of families once snapped Polaroid photos and enjoyed passing around the newly minted prints on the spot, instead of waiting a week for them to be developed.
Now, Polaroid hopes to conjure up those golden analog days of vast sales and instant gratification again - this time with images captured by digital cameras and camera phones.
This fall, the company expects to market a hand-sized printer that produces color snapshots in about 30 seconds.
Beam a photo from a cell phone to the printer and, with a purr, out comes the full-color print, formed and dry to the touch.
The printer, which connects wirelessly by Bluetooth to phones and by cable to cameras, will cost about $150. The images are 2 inches by 3 inches, the size of a credit card.
The new printers are so lightweight that a Polaroid executive demonstrating them recently had three tucked into his various suit pockets, whipping them out like Harpo Marx, but with no bulges in his trim jacket.
The printer opens like a compact with a neat, satisfying click. Inside, no cartridges or toner take up space.
Instead, there is a computer chip, a 2-inch-long thermal printhead and a novel kind of paper embedded with microscopic layers of dye crystals that can create a multitude of colors when heated.
When the image file is beamed from the camera to the printer, a program translates pixel information into heat information. Then, as the paper passes under the printhead, heat activates colors latent within the paper to form crisp images.
The unusual paper is the creation of former employees of Polaroid who originated the process there. They spun off as a separate company, Zink Imaging, in 2005 after Polaroid's bankruptcy and eventual sale to the Petters Group Worldwide in Minnetonka, Minn. The Alps Electric Co. in Tokyo will make the printers.
The potential market for instant printing of photos captured by camera phones and digital cameras is vast and largely untapped, said Steve Hoffenberg, an analyst at Lyra Research, a market research firm in Newtonville, Mass. "There's an explosion in picture taking," he said, "primarily because of the sheer number of camera phones out there on a worldwide basis."
Lyra projects shipments of about 880 million camera phones in 2008.
But it might be difficult for the new printers to find a niche. About 478 billion pictures will be taken worldwide in 2008, Hoffenberg said, most of them by camera phones, but only a tiny fraction of those clicks will end up as prints. "People can just post picture files on a Web page or e-mail them to other people," he said. "These days, people have many options."
The printers might catch on for social occasions such as family gatherings, he said, or among teenagers who might enjoy exchanging photos, or among professional groups such as real estate agents who want to hand an instant image to a prospective home buyer.
If the printers come into use, the snapshots will cost less than traditional Polaroid prints, which typically have run at least a dollar, and often more, during the past decade, said Jim Alviani, director for business development for Polaroid.
The Zink paper that pops into the printer will sell in 10-packs for $3.99 and in 30-packs for $9.99, at a cost of about 33 to 40 cents a sheet. The rechargeable lithium ion battery that runs the printer will last for about 15 shots.
The prints, which are borderless, have a semigloss finish and an adhesive backing that can be peeled off if users want to stick photos on a locker or notebook cover.
The unique paper that makes the small printer possible will be used not only with Polaroid but with other brands in the future, said Steve Herchen, chief technology officer of Zink, in Bedford, Mass.
The Tomy Co. in Tokyo, for example, will embed a Zink-friendly printer directly within a camera it plans to distribute, he said. The Foxconn Technology Group of Taiwan will make the integrated camera-printer.
Zink paper looks like ordinary white photographic paper, but its composition is different. "We begin with a plastic web," Herchen said, "and then put down our image-forming materials in multiple thin layers of dye crystals." Each 2-by-3-inch print has about 100 billion of these crystals. About 200 million heat pulses are delivered to the paper during printing to form the colors.
However ingenious the process, Hoffenberg of Lyra said, people might not be tempted to convert camera clicks into prints.
"Potential markets can exist because they aren't tapped," he said, "but also because they aren't actually a market. It's not always evident up front which is the case."