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Nikon patents revive the dream of a digital back for film SLRs?

By Richard Butler on Dec 19, 2012 at 20:41 GMT

A patent filed by Nikon in Japan appears to revive the long-held dream of adding a digital sensor to an existing film SLR. The Japanese Engineering Accomplishment blog found the recently published patent that shows a mechanism for mounting and adjusting the position of a digital sensor on a rear door that could be used to replace the conventional film door. However, the patent only covers the mounting of the sensor relative to the film guides - it doesn't address any of the hurdles that have stood in the way of anyone realizing this long-discussed idea.

Attempts to use digital sensors in film cameras dates back as far as the digital camera itself. The first digital SLRs were significantly-modified Nikon and Canon film models with alternative backs mounted on them. However, attempts to create systems that could be installed in a wide range of cameras, such as Silicon Film, have foundered.

The patent diagram shows a method of fitting and aligning a digital sensor on an alternate back for a film camera.

The most fundamental problems of retrofitting a digital sensor into the film bay of an existing SLR include lack of battery space and the need to constantly open the camera to change ISO, White Balance or any other image setting. And that's assuming many modern photographers would be willing to live without a rear LCD to check their images on.

The Nikon solution appears to involve a replacement back for the camera which would give the manufacturer more flexibility to overcome some of these problems.

However, there are still plenty of engineering challenges to overcome, as the blog post points out. The digital back would need to know when the shutter was being fired, in order to sync its exposure with the shutter's movement. The toppings in front of the sensor (microlenses, low-pass and IR filters) would need to be incredibly thin to avoid fouling the shutter, which is mounted very close to the film plane in conventional SLRs. Finally, existing bodies leave little room to fit the sensor's mounting board if it were to use a full-frame sensor, but using cropped-frame sensor would then require a means of masking the viewfinder to show the relevant crop.

All of these challenges could be lessened if the back were designed in concert with a new camera body.

Consequently, existing film SLR users might not want to get their hopes up too soon - we think it's unlikely Nikon would want to take on these challenges for each of a series of backs to suit the many existing models. Also consider that the number of old bodies can reasonably be assumed to be shrinking as they break or fall into disrepair and that only a proportion of owners would be willing to buy a digital back, and the market for each back looks increasingly small (meaning a handful of users would end up sharing the development cost of each different back).

Many film SLR owners have long harbored the dream of converting their camera to digital. This patent doesn't bring that possibility much closer.

The Engineering Accomplishment blog points out that, if you were to assume Nikon has continued the development of its film cameras, then the F6 is due for a replacement around now. If Nikon is intending to do anything beyond protecting a clever idea one of its engineers had (a fairly common fate for patents), we think it'd still involve having to buy a new camera first. (via PetaPixel)

Comments

Total comments: 147
12
88SAL
By 88SAL (Dec 20, 2012)

Some sort of soft release to help sync the shutter. I had the idea of a silicon film ages ago... Who cares if you have to open the back to adjust white balance/ISO, its not any different from loading a more appropriate film.

0 upvotes
Donald B
By Donald B (Dec 20, 2012)

im glad i kept my f3.

0 upvotes
gl2k
By gl2k (Dec 20, 2012)

Laughable. Since this gadget will never ever go into mass production it will cost a (small ?) fortune. Probably (a lot) more than a decent DSLR.

1 upvote
88SAL
By 88SAL (Dec 20, 2012)

No soul man.

0 upvotes
PeterLeyssens
By PeterLeyssens (Dec 20, 2012)

Whether it makes sense or not, it's unavoidable that electronics will scale down to a size where it becomes much more easy to fit it all into a (fairly thick) back for a film SLR. Seen the fact that Leica with the M9 has conquered the technical problem of allowing the use of wide angles with sharp angles of light on the sensor, the question then becomes if it would make economic sense to build and sell a back with a sensor.

0 upvotes
lxstorm
By lxstorm (Dec 20, 2012)

medium format systems deliver ability to switch among Polaroid peel apart, b&w, color film, slide & digital backs within one shooting session for decades (digital backs for about a decade) already, some backs let you preset zone correction

that is one of major reasons why pro tends to use pro (medium & large format) stuff because ones can choose media for every particular snap

But 35mm cine media cameras have there own benefits - size, weight, simplicity, cost, autofocus (yes modern MF delivers autofocus capabilities and 35mm Leica M is a manual focus camera)

0 upvotes
Provia_fan
By Provia_fan (Dec 20, 2012)

Is anyone thinking that maybe people can use their amazing classic glass with no adapters and so on at least?? I think it's great and a very clever move by Nikon to reach an even wider audience. And who says it's not gonna be Full Frame? 35mm cameras ARE full frame cameras anyway!

Comment edited 32 seconds after posting
1 upvote
lxstorm
By lxstorm (Dec 20, 2012)

you may google IMAGEK
"angle of incidence silicon image capture" another subject to consider for an FF lenses especially

1 upvote
mantra
By mantra (Dec 20, 2012)

i don't see any sense above all , with camera like the d800 36mp or low entry like the 6d and d600

in the future the full frame will be the standard

and add a digital senor to a srl doesn't make any sense today

i can understand add a digital sensor to a medium format , seening the cost of these cameras

1 upvote
88SAL
By 88SAL (Dec 20, 2012)

You dont own film cameras? You dont love their lenses and build quality? Ive been deaming of this, the Epson RD-1 has been the closest thing to this experience, and despite its flaws, I would love to own one.

1 upvote
mantra
By mantra (Dec 21, 2012)

yes i do , i have nikon f , f2 and f3 , and lots of canon , very loved Hasselblad and mamiya

but honestly if i wan to shoot with film camera i shoot film!

about my hasselblads and mamiya well i would love to have a cheap digital sensor

but honestley the black and white i obtain from mamiya and hasselblad (fim) the quality , the print , the texture no digital camera can

1 upvote
Anastigmat
By Anastigmat (Dec 20, 2012)

I think one reason to file such a patent may be to PREVENT anybody who may be thinking about converting the existing film cameras into digital cameras. They cannot do it now if Nikon says they violated this patent. I doubt that Nikon will ever build any digital camera backs to retrofit its film cameras. And if Nikon won't then the reason for filing this patent is to stop other people from doing it. It would be nice to retrofit a full frame sensor onto an F5 and have a digital camera with interchangeable prisms. It is not going to happen, though. Mark my words.

Comment edited 50 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Joseph S Wisniewski
By Joseph S Wisniewski (Dec 20, 2012)

Read what the patent is actually for, lol.

It's about an adjustment mechanism for a digital back. That's not going to PREVENT anyone from doing anything, at all. The actual digital back for 35mm camera patents all go back so long ago that they're expired. The only patents still in force are for refinements of the concept.

0 upvotes
T3
By T3 (Dec 20, 2012)

If it ever happens, it's going to be a very expensive niche product because people who still own working film cameras are a very niche group. And this contraption probably still would not work as effectively as a purpose-built DSLR. Would have been a reasonably viable idea 10 years ago, though. But I'm sure there will be at least a few people who will shell out the big bucks for such a novelty product, just to take their old film bodies out for a spin once in a while.

1 upvote
bgD300
By bgD300 (Dec 20, 2012)

Dang, I sold my F2 and F4 already. :(

0 upvotes
luigibozi
By luigibozi (Dec 20, 2012)

... and what about D600 "dust" issues?

0 upvotes
tbnl
By tbnl (Dec 20, 2012)

Meh.

Just keep companies like Kodak alive to make film and give me a place to develop and I'll keep using my wonderful FE along with my D7000.

1 upvote
RUcrAZ
By RUcrAZ (Dec 20, 2012)

Maybe a "bad fit" for still pics, but what about using my old Nikon F as a digital video cam? Would that work?

0 upvotes
Debankur Mukherjee
By Debankur Mukherjee (Dec 20, 2012)

This should have been done by Nikon at least 10 years back.... I have already sold my FM2s and MF lenses for DSLRs......

0 upvotes
W Keith McManus
By W Keith McManus (Dec 20, 2012)

I had a black Nikon F like the one pictured here. There is no way I'd want to go back to using that camera, even with a digital back. Nikons and other cameras have come a long way since this camera was introduced.

1 upvote
Dave Luttmann
By Dave Luttmann (Dec 20, 2012)

A nice digital back for my Nikon F5 please!

1 upvote
JDThomas
By JDThomas (Dec 20, 2012)

They have one. It's attached to the D1X.

1 upvote
Jim Mohundro
By Jim Mohundro (Dec 22, 2012)

Way, way back in my Ftn days, I envied the (few) owners of the Zeiss Contarex because it had expensive but usuable multiple backs. Those were the days when it seemed an attractive option to be able to switch easily between color and monochrome films and between "fast" (ASA 400+) and fine grain films.

I finally asked a pro free lance photographer why there wasn't an outcry among professionals for interchangeable back Nikons and his reply showed just how naive I was about the difference between amateurs and professionals. The easy answer for him and other pros was simply to carry as many Nikon bodies (and lenses) as necessary to do the job at hand. I'm sure that when I talked to him he was wearing at least a couple of Nikons around his neck.

I never thought I really wanted to carry that big hunk of a Contarex even if I could have afforded it. I decided forever after to travel light. So why is my camera of choice and use today a D700?

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
2 upvotes
Raymond Cho
By Raymond Cho (Dec 22, 2012)

I still shoot film, recently more than digital. I just like the workflow. More a challenge, anticipate the result etc .. all in camera if I am shooting slides. Output is held to some white clouds. But I don't shoot action or mass amounts and I don't do it for pay.

I though, if one can get a used dSLR 6yr used or even a new low end body that's so cheap anyway. And dSLR tech have come a long way. Larger, brighter viewfinders, long battery life, huge memory cards, one can then shoot so much more and not care about costs, easier than scanning and that many dedicated scanners now have ceased, I got my Coolscan used with a hacked driver for Win7.

Basically for me is that there are so many fSLR that they won't fail, just get anohter new/used one. They would have less mileage than a dSLR too. I'll just buy a fSLR and a dSLR and not care about these backs. No reason they cannot make a back thou in theory .....

0 upvotes
Raymond Cho
By Raymond Cho (Dec 22, 2012)

Costs for an amateur isn't that great. Instead of buying new dSLRs. I shoot the most impt shots only, on travel. If I shot 10 rolls per year even at the prices today's that's just 10x $10 for the film and 10x $8 for the development. Which is $180US for the year, not expensive at all. Esp for someone who likes film. The reason I still shoot a 6MP is b/c I don't use high ISO and it can print at 13" wide. Stil leaps and bounds more than 35mm at least technically. If one looks at some shots by national geographic slow shutter is one technique some employ. So it's not always the sharpest or the least grain etc ..... just what works. I can understand for wedding, events, sports, wildlife thou but not in that camp myself.

Could be protection. In case others design it and get them instead of buying dSLR bodies! I would think that there is more money to be made getting pple to buy bodies every few yrs than a back. Larger market/demand. Backs have a niche, $, maybe $2-3k min?

Comment edited 8 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
tornwald
By tornwald (Dec 20, 2012)

a full size Foveon sensor for the Mamiya 7 please :)

1 upvote
AmaturFotografer
By AmaturFotografer (Dec 21, 2012)

It's gonna be expensive as hell.

0 upvotes
Allan Gendelman
By Allan Gendelman (Dec 20, 2012)

My Nikon FE2 with a digital sensor. That's the dream.

2 upvotes
Dave Luttmann
By Dave Luttmann (Dec 20, 2012)

I use an F 5 now....but the FE2 and FA were two of my faves.

0 upvotes
spiderhunter
By spiderhunter (Dec 20, 2012)

In this day and age, nothing is impossible. We are only limited by our own minds, afterall we are only finite.

0 upvotes
Stephen_C
By Stephen_C (Dec 20, 2012)

We are only limited by our own minds. Our own minds and sometimes time and resources.

0 upvotes
Josh152
By Josh152 (Dec 20, 2012)

Actually the biggest limit on what is possible in this day and age is marketability. Sadly if a new innovation won't make money for someone it will simply never exist.

0 upvotes
HENNING GNLD
By HENNING GNLD (Dec 20, 2012)

In this case I would like to have my FM 3A digitalised for 36mp....and not the same sensor of the N1V1.... silly size that!!
Should I go on with all the settings saved from Capture NX 2 ticked to have a perfected NO noised image..... ?

Yes we can dream on, will it ever happen???

Only time will tell...

0 upvotes
LarryK
By LarryK (Dec 19, 2012)

I want my digital 120 film! Been waiting for a while now.

Either that or a twin lens Reflex.

0 upvotes
Alejandro del Pielago
By Alejandro del Pielago (Dec 19, 2012)

...Hybrid cameras:

some professional assignments could be faced with film... other assignmentes (or the same) could be faced with a sensor... All with just a body and with just a lens system...

Some stuff like this has sense. I´d like the hybrid F6..., but "digitaliize" an existing film camera ???, No thanks.

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Photozopia
By Photozopia (Dec 19, 2012)

"Nikon ... protecting a clever idea one of its engineers had (a fairly common fate for patents) ..." says it all.

Just a protection device against someone else doing it - for real - one day and Nikon missing out on potential royalties.

Shame listing patents 'aint free, or we could all be registering crazy ideas for the future ... until newer technology, or some genius, solves the 'how-to' issue of actually achieving it.

2 upvotes
TrapperJohn
By TrapperJohn (Dec 19, 2012)

I want! (if the price isn't too hideous, which it probably will be)

I have an F and an F3 that saw a lot of use in film days, and I'd love to get them out again. Might not be the optimal solution, and it won't have all the electronic bells and whistles, but those two cameras have that wonderful 1970's Nikon feel to them, like they were carved from a single block of metal.

Besides, they look so... classy.

Do it, Nikon, and keep the price under $1k.

0 upvotes
thomo
By thomo (Dec 19, 2012)

Firstly, it is possible! If you have a look at the Nikon Rumors article on the patent you will see Kodak's early effort - the DCS100 which was a back fitted to an F3 body. When you think about a modern DSLR and you remove the viewfinder and mirror box there is not a lot of volume left - it could certainly fit into the space of the old 'data' backs - that's what Kodak produced!
It has been done countless times before on medium format film cameras which has a far smaller number of prospective sales than 35mm film. If they are reasonably priced I'll have seven of them - one each for my Nikonmat, F, F2, F3, F4, F5 and one for my FE, FE2, FM2 & FA.
Thank heavens there are enough of us old farts that still have these film cameras, are passionate about the hobby and have the disposable income to buy such an accessory.
You only have to look at what people are paying for 'retro' style digital cameras like the Fuji X100 and X-pro1 to see there is a market for such a product.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
0 upvotes
MarceloSalup
By MarceloSalup (Dec 19, 2012)

Too little, too late. Where the industry needs to go is improving the current SLR-look-alike design and evolve it into something 21st century. The new Sony/Hasselblad design, for example, is very innovative.

0 upvotes
sebastian huvenaars
By sebastian huvenaars (Dec 19, 2012)

you had my vote until the last sentence hehe ;)

3 upvotes
Joe Ogiba
By Joe Ogiba (Dec 19, 2012)

Right, get a FF back for your F2 for only $4,000.

1 upvote
Tonio Loewald
By Tonio Loewald (Dec 19, 2012)

At some point someone — probably not Nikon of Canon — will build an FX camera body that runs a real OS (Android or iOS) and has in body stabilization on-sensor phase detect AF, wifi, gps, a good viewfinder, intelligent controls, and can use every conceivable lens (Leica, M43, F, EOS) with full AF support, etc. This is rocket science for the camera companies but perfectly doable for software-savvy high tech companies. This is almost in kickstarter territory today (the sensor and maybe mechanical shutter are the only non-commodity items) and the camera companies have no clue.

Such a device is actually more practical than a thing that sits inside an old film body. You do miss out on the old pentaprism viewfinder.

This is probably something Black Magic or Red could do if they gave a damn.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 1 minute after posting
2 upvotes
Bluetrain048
By Bluetrain048 (Dec 20, 2012)

+1 for the most forward thinking reply I've seen on this site in ages.

0 upvotes
DavidH202
By DavidH202 (Dec 19, 2012)

What an absolute waste of time and effort this late in the digital game!!!!
David

0 upvotes
Josh SZ
By Josh SZ (Dec 19, 2012)

Nikon can patent whatever they wants to but the real question is if they can come up a complete solution that is easy to use and within say $1000. otherwise it is just a thought. only very small percentage of patents become reality.

2 upvotes
Joseph S Wisniewski
By Joseph S Wisniewski (Dec 19, 2012)

I'm not having much luck with this one. The article says "Here are few paragraphs from the actual patent application I copied directly from the Japanese IPDL database."

So, I popped over to the IPDL database, searched for that publication number, and got a "There is no corresponding document" message. I must be doing something wrong...

1 upvote
imbimmer
By imbimmer (Dec 19, 2012)

Joseph, you can follow this link:

http://www4.ipdl.inpit.go.jp/Tokujitu/tjsogodben.ipdl?N0000=115

Choose Kind code "A", fill in the publication # 2012-242615, then click "search".

On the next page, click the hyperlink JP.2012-242615.A

Wait a moment, the machine translation provided by the patent office will show up.

If you click the JAPANESE button within the top frame, then you can see a photocopy of the original publication in Japanese.

Simon

0 upvotes
Joseph S Wisniewski
By Joseph S Wisniewski (Dec 20, 2012)

Thank you very much.

That worked.

0 upvotes
chocobanana
By chocobanana (Dec 19, 2012)

Maybe my FM2 will become my first digital full frame camera???

Doesn't Hasselblad have already a digital back for their medium format film cameras?

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 1 minute after posting
1 upvote
plasnu
By plasnu (Dec 19, 2012)

I don't need this. I NEED FILM SCANNER.

5 upvotes
Dave Luttmann
By Dave Luttmann (Dec 20, 2012)

There's scanners available. Why arent you interested in them?

0 upvotes
plasnu
By plasnu (Dec 20, 2012)

Because my film cameras are not sitting on the shelf behind the glass, instead, they are in my camera bag now.

0 upvotes
D1N0
By D1N0 (Dec 20, 2012)

so you want an in camera film scanner, that can scan undeveloped films?

2 upvotes
petepictures
By petepictures (Dec 19, 2012)

No thanks ,I am perfectly happy shooting film with my film cameras.

2 upvotes
mosswings
By mosswings (Dec 19, 2012)

Why does this idea still hold such appeal for photographers who started in the film era (of which I am one)? Digital cameras are a competely different beast from film cameras. The simplicity and compactness of film era cameras is a direct consequence of most of the magic occurring in that little film canister. When the digital era allowed photographers shot-by-shot control over all the recording characteristics that were previously not adjustable, and the ability to review images in-camera, the ergonometrics of digital SLRs changed forever. So too did lens designs; those older lenses that took advantage of film's wider acceptance angles don't give as good a result on today's high-res digital bodies.

We would be better served by moving on to a form factor that maximizes the advantages of digital. That's happening as we speak. If this is marketed, it's to a portion of the photo market that has more money than time left. And confirms that this market is dying as well.

3 upvotes
Goodmeme
By Goodmeme (Dec 19, 2012)

I hope this becomes a reality.

But it will probably not come from Nikon or Canon I expect we'll wait until patents wear off. This is daft because I'm sure it would mainly be an additional toy for enthusiasts, not an alternative to real digital camera.

I hope someone will bring out a basic sensor in the same size as a roll of film, so it is universal. I would presume, rather than the fun ideas Marcuz posits, that such a device might work if you just adjust the iso on it itself and just tell the camera what speed ASA film (or rather, ISO) is in it.

In all honesty, unless it only cost a few hundred, yet was at least APS-C and preferably full 35mm, I doubt it would sell. But for novelty value, it would be priceless. Great for those who don't like chimping, or who want something they can repair/upgrade more easily.

0 upvotes
M Lammerse
By M Lammerse (Dec 19, 2012)

A pity I sold all my old Nikon film stuff and bought a G2...with this news it might create some financial stir among some Japanese used film camera stores I know Those dust collecting models of Nikon might (soon) have a new life..:-)

Personally I don't see Nikon making it self, but sell/partnership the patent to a company which wants to take the risk of producing and selling (service) this idea and in a nation where it can be produced also a lot cheaper (hint China.)

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
marcuz
By marcuz (Dec 19, 2012)

That's amazing, I've thought nobody thought of that, that I invented it :)

I sure hope they do it right, film like quality on a electro-chemical, or bio-electric, what you have, sensor; adjustable iso by camera knobs, 35 exposures, then you rewind it, extract it, plug it on a computer and post produce.

Winding again the film erases the images on it and reset it.

And, as I'm sci-fictioning, it should be as affordable as original film rolls were in their heyday.

1 upvote
Joseph S Wisniewski
By Joseph S Wisniewski (Dec 19, 2012)

Sorry.

I have a list of over 100 patents on digital film backs or canisters for 35mm cameras, some going back over 20 years.

0 upvotes
KentG
By KentG (Dec 20, 2012)

The last attempt at a film sized digital catridge, Silicon Film, died a lingering death after a few prototypes were seen. By the time they had a working 6 MP prototype, DSLRs themselves were already past that to 10 MP.

0 upvotes
Ernest M Aquilio
By Ernest M Aquilio (Dec 19, 2012)

My F3 could benefit from this :)

0 upvotes
Summi Luchs
By Summi Luchs (Dec 19, 2012)

If Nikon has any plans to deploy this patent I can only imagine a totally new camera, lets call it "DF7". A camera that can be used alternatively with film or the digital back. In this case it wouldn't be a problem to provide sufficient space for the sensor+sensor circuit board as like as the necessary connections between shutter and electronics. Even an ISO dial usable for film and digital would become possible. I don't think it its planned to provide a digital solution for old film SLRs. But is there a real market for such a hybrid ?

0 upvotes
Frank de Ridder
By Frank de Ridder (Dec 19, 2012)

Oeps

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
plevyadophy
By plevyadophy (Dec 19, 2012)

I am a wee bit confused here. Didn't Leica make a digital back, that seemed to work just fine, for their Leica R SLR? Or am I missing something (perhaps it was a specially designed R body)?

0 upvotes
Andy Westlake
By Andy Westlake (Dec 19, 2012)

You're thinking of the Digital Modul R, which was purpose designed for the R8 and R9 bodies. It had a 10MP crop sensor, and consisted of a back housing the sensor, and power grip that bolted onto the base. It didn't sell well, as it cost more on its own than contemporary APS-C SLRs.

http://www.dpreview.com/news/2003/6/25/leicadigitalr9

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
1 upvote
KentG
By KentG (Dec 20, 2012)

Pentax has an even older patent for a camera with interchangeable film and digital backs from around 1998 or so, even before their first DSLR. All the big Japanese camera companies do this often so it means very little in the real scheme of things.

0 upvotes
Midnighter
By Midnighter (Dec 19, 2012)

There was a time I would have been interested in such a thing, now I can only think of such a thing as a curiosity.

3 upvotes
bikinchris
By bikinchris (Dec 19, 2012)

They could hang a battery pack where the motor drive went. They could even include a motor drive inside. But that would raise the price a lot. If they made it modular, they could include a back for the different models, a sensor would clip into the back and the whole thing would plug into the electronics and battery hung off the tripod mount.
I might want to start looking for another F3 or Fm2 body.

0 upvotes
Goodmeme
By Goodmeme (Dec 19, 2012)

Good point, how about solar power topping up a new-fangled small battery, eneloop style? Or wireless charging device on the strap?

I think one of the biggest problems today is portable power. Our batteries simply aren't good enough yet for lots of stuff that could otherwise be feasible.

0 upvotes
Joseph S Wisniewski
By Joseph S Wisniewski (Dec 19, 2012)

No, Chris, it wouldn't. I had a $29 power winder for a Nikon FG, LOL.

1 upvote
mannaoz
By mannaoz (Dec 20, 2012)

Isn't it amazing. Years ago now when digital was just getting off the ground. And Olympus camera cost $5000.00. The people were trying to utilize the camera bodies with another back, Yes they were removable then to do just this. Then cameras became cheaper and the powers that be forgot about all the old hardware out there. Now we have saturation well almost it;s back on the agenda. Funny if you stay around long enough and keep your old equipment you may even get to use it once more.

0 upvotes
Jan Dirk Geertsema
By Jan Dirk Geertsema (Dec 20, 2012)

It seems as if everybody already forgot the more than excellent Leica Digital Module R. An excellent setup with more than excellent image quality! Unfortunately no longer around...

0 upvotes
Total comments: 147
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