More than 75% of cell phones now have embedded digital cameras. Users would take more pictures with their cell phone cameras if their photos were more similar in quality to those taken with digital still cameras (DSCs). They also would appreciate avoiding the added cost and nuisance penalty of carrying multiple consumer devices. Wireless operators would be overjoyed if more users took advantage of their cameraphones, because they see video, in its broadest sense, as a lucrative form of high growth revenue. So, in essence, the more pixels that traverse the wireless networks, either in still picture form or video, the better.
|Bereziuk: Five factors stand in the way of cameraphones taking over.|
Will cell phone cameras replace DSCs? The answer is, “Maybe.” You have to analyze what, today, prevents the cell phone camera from providing a DSC-like experience.
The answer is 5-fold:
1) Low-Light Performance: This is the No.1 problem due to the small image sensor pixel size and the small lens form factor. Cameraphones are notoriously bad in low-light conditions, such as indoors, pubs and nightclubs. The use of smart optics, a combination of custom lenses and image processing, will markedly improve this performance area.
2) Anti-Shake: The frustration of blurred images is another major complaint of cell phone cameras, and a problem that is exacerbated by low-light performance. Solve the low-light problem and you are halfway to solving the anti-shake issue. Combine improved low-light performance with additional image processing, and the problem can be improved dramatically.
3) Resolution: Today’s cell phone cameras are largely in the VGA to 3-megapixel range. This is due to a combination of camera module size, cost and network bandwidth, which historically haven’t been able to handle transmission of such a great number of bits (especially in the United States.) This is changing with the widespread availability of 3G. The latest wafer-level camera technology will have a transformational effect on the size and cost of the camera module. It will enable the $1 VGA camera module in a 3.3mm x 3.3mm x 2.5mm form factor at the low-end, reducing the cost and size of multi-megapixel solutions. Expect the combination of these to accelerate the adoption of higher megapixel camera modules as well as secondary VGA cameras for videoconferencing.
4) Features: The latest generation of DSCs not only offers high pixel counts, anti-shake and better low-light performance, it also adds a range of features, some of which are considered standard (auto-focus, zoom and red-eye/golden-eye removal). Some of these features are novel and useful. These include face tracking, which can be used to enable optimal exposure and focus settings, and smile and blink detection to trigger shutter action, and, eventually, face recognition. Add to the mix fun new features, such as beautification, which can modify images in a variety of ways.
The “challenges” of implementing this portfolio of features on cameraphones includes a combination of size, cost, reliability, battery life/performance and ergonomic factors. Starting with reliability, a cell phone needs to be very rugged as it most likely will be dropped multiple times during its life. Anything with actuators/motors should be avoided. The latest smart optics technologies are an ideal way to provide digital auto-focus and zoom with no moving parts. Smart optics also adds the benefits of a much smaller form factor and lower power and cost, ideal for slim mobile appliances. Expect to see this implementation appear in phones over the next 12 months.
5) Battery life is clearly a major challenge in mobile devices. The avoidance of actuators (for auto-focus and zoom) and xenon flash discharge lamps (through the use of better low-light performance and anti-shake previously mentioned) contribute significantly extend battery life. In cell phone cameras, performance is often at the expense of battery, and the emerging DSC features discussed above are based largely on smart image processing. Smart image processing – when done purely in software – requires a lot of processing horsepower and, hence, battery drain. The ideal solution is a hybrid embedded implementation which, given the trend toward application or co-processors, is more easily facilitated. A hybrid implementation results in a solution which is low cost, doesn’t use a lot of power, and yet still has sufficient performance to be user-friendly in response time and is able to run a full range of features.
Expect to see features such as face tracking and smile and blink detection running on a cell phone camera in the near future. Also, look for other image processing features, traditionally accomplished off-camera on a PC, enabled in cell phones. From an ergonomic point of view, one of the challenges of providing a range of DSC features in a cell phone is the lack of space for multiple buttons/controls, so the user interface must be simple, yet intuitive.
Combining all of these features will soon result in a cell phone camera with an expansive range of DSC features within the size and power constraints of a mobile device.
Will you be donating your digital camera to Goodwill? Can cameraphones achieve the quality you desire? Let us hear your opinion by using the comment box below.
Bereziuk is COO and executive vice president of the Imaging and Optics Division for Tessera.