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The first camera phone was sold 22 years ago, and it's not what you'd expect

Samsung has taken credit for selling the first camera phone, but there are multiple other claims for this milestone.

Published onJune 1, 2021

Kyocera VP-210

There’s no doubt that the introduction of the first mobile cellular phone was a massive milestone in worldwide communication. However, another major leap in that area was made almost 22 years ago. In May of 1999, Japan was the launchpad for the Kyocera VP-210. It was the first such phone with a built-in camera that was sold commercially to the general public.

Read more: Best camera smartphones

Of course, the idea of merging a camera with a mobile phone didn’t come first from Kyocera. In fact, there seems to be some confusion online as to which device was actually the first camera phone (more on that later).

The camera phone prototypes and experiments

Apple video phone

Before the launch of the Kyocera VP-210, there were plenty of designs made for mobile phones that had some kind of camera onboard. In 1993, Daniel A. Henderson created two prototypes of a “wireless picturephone technology” device called the Intellect. It was a portable product designed to receive and display images and video from a message center wirelessly. Those two prototypes are now in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Read more: The best Android smartphones you can buy right now

A few years later, in 1995, the Macworld print magazine had an article that imagined what Apple might create. According to The Atlantic, Apple actually shared a design for a never-released videophone that combined the look of the company’s Newton PDA with a video camera and display.

In 1997, Philippe Kahn “MacGyvered” the first working camera phone. His wife was about to give birth to their first child, and Kahn wanted to take pictures and share them with family and friends immediately. The Mercury News reported that he had a Casio QV-10 digital camera with an LCD display, along with a Motorola StarTAC flip phone and a laptop. While his wife was in the hospital, Kahn quickly created a hardware and software interface to connect the camera and the phone via the laptop.

First cellphone camera picture

Kahn managed to finish this combo in time for his wife to give birth. You can see the first cell phone camera image above, which Kahn took of his daughter, Sophie. Because of his work, he was able to quickly share this photo with 2,000 people.

The first camera phone was the Kyocera VP-210

Kyocera VP210

As we mentioned earlier, Kyocera claims to have launched the first camera phone sold to the general public. The announcement of the VP (or “Visual Phone”) 210 was covered by CNN in May 1999. The phone had an 0.11MP camera and could take up to 20 pictures before its onboard storage was full. It even had its own integrated stand so that users could take pictures of themselves. The price for the phone in Japan was 40,000 yen (~$325 in 1999, or about $521 today).

Samsung says it was first with the SCH-V200…

Samsung SCH-V200

It took another year before another mobile phone with a camera went on sale. In June 2000, Samsung launched the SCH-V200 phone in its home country of South Korea. It could take up to 20 pictures at a resolution of 0.35MP, and you could see them on the phone’s 1.5-inch TFT LCD. However, you couldn’t use the phone to send the pictures to someone else directly; you had to hook up the camera portion of the phone to a PC and transfer the photos to your computer in order to do that.

In 2019, Samsung posted an infographic claiming that the SCH-V200 was the first such phone with a built-in camera. As you can see, that claim is dubious considering the existence of the Kyocera model. Remarkably, there’s even another contender for the title…

 … or was it the Sharp J-Phone?

Sharp J-Phone
In November 2000, the Sharp J-SH04 — better known as the Sharp J-Phone — went on sale in Japan as the third camera phone. Sharp integrated the hardware of the phone and camera with each other, unlike Samsung’s phone. This integration allowed the phone’s owners to send the 0.11MP images taken with its camera directly from the device via email. One of the companies that helped with Sharp’s efforts was LightSurf, which, according to B&H Photo, was founded by none other than Philippe Kahn.

The first U.S. camera phone: the Sanyo SCP-5300

Sanyo Camera phone
Sanyo SCP-5300

It took a while for the camera phone trend to hit the United States. In November 2002, over two years after the Samsung SCH-V200 launched in South Korea, the Sanyo SCP-5300 (also known as the Sanyo Katana) went on sale in this country, via Sprint. It cost about $400, had a clamshell design, and a camera that could take 0.3MP images. Time magazine once put the phone on its list of the most influential gadgets.

The start of something big

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera module macro 1
David Imel / Android Authority

Once cameras started appearing as a default feature on mobile phones, it was a bygone conclusion that the popularity of small digital standalone cameras would take a big hit. In 2003, The New York Times reported sales of camera phones were already higher than standalone digital cameras. In 2006, camera phones surpassed sales of both digital and film cameras.

Today, smartphones have features that were not even considered 22 years ago. We are seeing more and more smartphones with three or more rear cameras, along with cameras with massive sensors. We have software features that make editing images and video a snap, along with special effects like bokeh and more to make your photos look great. A smartphone camera can help us shop, translate text, and even let us play games with AR titles like Pokémon Go.

What do you think the next 22 years will bring in the era of smartphone cameras? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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