Nowhere is the disruptive waves of change emanating from rapid developments in electronics more evident than in photography markets. 150 years of chemical films came to a close in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with the rise of digital cameras[just ask Eastman Kodak]. Now separate video and still cameras are merging as both compact cameras and SLRs become the video camera of choice for both consumers and many professionals [just ask Cisco about Flip]. And those great disruptive electronic devastators, smartphones and tablets, have just wrested top spot on the popular photo site Flickr for most frequently used camera. So what is up for photography and image taking reflects a lot of the disruptive events in consumer electronics [just ask GPS providers Garmin and TomTom or game makers Nintendo and Sony].
This report will look at photography-driving technologies such as profound improvements in digital image sensors and related huge increases in graphics chips speeds. But also critical underlying components such as optics with lens miniaturization, ever increasing storage capabilities, and improving battery capacity with shrinking weight have strong impacts as well.
There has been a competitive chain reaction in the camera industry to the emergence and popular use of smartphone and tablet cameras. Compact camera makers are adding on smartphone matching features like GPS, WiFi control, touch sensitive screens, video recording and other goodies to stay up with the Jobs and company yet charging ever lower prices. But in turn the rapidly improving compact cameras put pressure on the top of the line SLR cameras and so they in turn are delivering better features like better exposures using HDR methods, top-notch video taking features, automatic panoramic picture taking, and in camera special effects and lighting condition responses. The result is that cameras with smarts on board are now emulating how the human eye+brain sees the World better than ever before.
So now Smartphones+tablets with their cameras and apps now drive camera feature sets. One can see new camera features borrowed from mobile devices being used in compact cameras and the new breed of interchangeable lens cameras. Everybody is looking for an edge and here are the technologies that will enable those quick-to-market improvements in photography that will appear in still and video cameras at every level.
The New Sensor Chips
Chips have driven camera technology for the past decade as digital photography has replaced film in both still and video photography. The same Moore’s Law, a doubling in performance every 2 years or less for the same price, that drives computing is also in the drivers seat in cameras too. There are two chips that have been effected by Moore’s Law. First the digital sensor chips can now deliver 16-20MPixels on the same size die that delivered 5-6MPixels 4 years ago – and for the same price if not cheaper. As well, graphics processing chips used in digital cameras to process and store the images taken have seen more than a doubling in speed and performance. Now camera makers are working to take advantage of such “extra capacity”.
Two sensor chips that go beyond the relentless Moore’s law upsizing of chips in MPixel capacity are a steroscopic chip and a new upsidedown fabrication methodology that have major implications. First the steroscopic sensor chip:
Stereoscopic lens on chip design
The idea behind the stereoscopic chip is to have a multiplicity of lenses on the sensor that allows for 3D images to be displayed. And there is talk of 3D coming to smartphones and has already arrived for video cameras. But a second idea of a stereocopic sensor chip has been picked up by Lytro in its multi-focus images as featured here. And of course there is speculation that the Apple iPad3 display will be edge to edge 3D technology as well[we will believe it when we see it]. So the 3D sensor chip is bearing fruit in fairly short order. Expect to see more 3D capabilities at reduced resolutions; but given 18MPixel original sensors a reduction by a factor of 8 still produces HD capable video images.
Ditto for wave of upside down designs for sensor chips. Again this is a 2008 chip sensor breakthough which is now coming to market. But the idea is quite simple – move the CMOS sensor layer up above the wiring layers on the chip to reduce sensor distortion drastically:
Backlight or UpsideDown sensor chip design
The result have been spectacular. Sony compact camera’s smaller CMOS Exmor sensor chips perform as as well as chips 30% bigger with better sharpness and less noise in low light situations. And although Sony is leading the parade, the whole of the camera business is following suit. Currently 20% of cameras use this backside MOS sensor technology; by 2015 that number is expected to be 70%.
Also Sony is moving rapidly on the technology side of its Exmor chip sensor. Using blazing fast sensor chips+graphics processors, Sonyis able to make multiple special iamge reads to produce much better images with HDR multiple reads. The net result is better lowlight yet low noise images.And there are a whole series of other chip sensor technologies percolating up. For example, Viimagic has a HDTV sensor that capture low light images at up to 240fps. And Nikkoia has new infrared sensitive sensor coating that enhance both image talking and multi-touch interface designs. And just as impressive as these new sensor chips improvements are spectacular strides which have been achieved in graphic processor chips.
The New Graphic Processing Chips
Low power, high speed processing chips have made the mobile smartphone and tablet revolution possible. And there is a new wave of quad-core chips from Nvidia and Qualcomm among others coming down the pike that provide 5 times more processing power for only 80% of the current chips power requirements. And by down the pike, it is meant either Christmas 2011 or early 2012 when the quad core chips start to appear in smartphones and tablets. It is this kind of chip technology performance that will seep into digital cameras. But camera makers are at a crossroads.
Do they use the familiar DIGIC [Canon], Nikon[Exspeed] and other graphic processing designs or do they embrace the low-power but general purpose smartphone/tablet chips like those from Nvidia and Qualcomm. The smartphone/tablet chips provide not just huge graphics processing capabilities but also libraries of software for processing GPS, WiFi, multi-touch screen operations, and even phone/messaging features as well. Camera makers could selectively apply to their models not only for value add but to also blunt the market share grab represented by cameras on smartphones and tablets.
Camera makers have to worry about iDevice cameras. There are examples of detachable iPhone zoom camera lenses, electronic zooming, and 3D support. And these technologies could get very good very fast. Not just the optics improvements cited below but the huge computing power in graphics chips presents opportunities for mobile gadget vendors. So photography vendors may find that they are thrust into and are really a part of the broader mobile markets after all.
More Very Fast Storage
Storage of images on cameras has to be 3 things: fast, fast, and lots. The world of flash memories and SSD drives seems to insure that will be the direction for the next 2-3 years and likely more. First and foremost, flash memory and Solid State Disk-drives are converging because SSD are using more of the new NAND flash memory parts for the better reliability, low power without sacrificing too much speed. Also Flash memory has improved in read/write reliability as well as capacity.
But the new trend is novel hybrid units that use volatile RAM[memory is lost when the unit is powered off] plus flash memory[data is preserved despite power off and on again] all in the same packaging. This works well in tablets and may be imported to cameras so that onboard memory can be extended beyond the paltry 10-20 pictures currently allowed. It will also allow for more templates, effects, and maybe even apps to be download to a camera to add new functionaility. Clearly the camera makers have to answer the apps and customization advantage that smartphones and tablets have.
Now lets take a look at the “fast, fast, and lots” requirements for flash memory and SSD. SanDisk has a 128GB compact flash card with 100MB/sec write cycle but costs $1500. Micron has added ECC-Error Correction Code on board its 8 to 64gb chips allowing speed ups in the camera chip’s handling of read/write cycles. Phase-change chips are 70-120% faster than traditional Flash chips, eliminate the ECC requirements and have been produced in 8GB chip sizes. HP’s memresistor technology is another Flash Memory replacement and its scheduled for production in 2013 at densities of 20GB per square cm of of chip dye at faster speed and lower power requirements for projected competing flash memory. IBM’s ractrack memory promises even larger increases in storage capacity at comparable flash memory speed but is still 3-5 years from first device delivery. In sum, the technology for fast and large capacity flash and SSD memory/drive appears to be filled with very promising new technologies that will allow camera designers maximum opportunity in the storage arena.
This reviewer can remember when getting 60 photos from a pair of double AA batteries in a digital camera[no names to protect nickoning on the innocent]was the state of the art. But Lithium-ion batteries changed all that ten years ago. Now despite increases in size of images and new processing tasks, one can take 300-500 images on one battery recharge using Li-ion batteries. And the improvements to Li-ion continue apace with dramatic recharging speeds and wider range of charge capacity being quickly commercialized. In fact the process of refining Li-ion performance has been cleverly automated producing a wider range of materials and better battery characteristics quicker.
The impetus that is driving development of better Li-ion batteries is not confined to consumer electronics like cameras, smartphones and tablets; but now a larger impetus is energy conservation and conversion as in the move to electric powered automobiles. The result has been a wide spectrum of new discoveries. Wildcat has developed better cathode materials and energy densities using nanotechnology and special electrolytes. The other directions are towards new materials like Potassium-ion which promise higher capacity with better reliability and the use of thin films[primarily Li-ion] which allow the flexibility of shaping batteries that wrap around the devices and fit more compactly in small or irregularly shaped gadgets. In sum, camera batteries should continue to improve in performance and cost at a steady pace for the next 5-10 years.
Optics: The Basic Ingredient
One of the reasons that smartphones and tablets as cameras have grown so dramatically has been their prevalence and the improvement in optics of glasses and plastics. This has allowed designers to add two and even three cameras to smartphones and tablets . But of even greater impact has been the steady improvement in lensing in the mobiles. The result is that mobile devices have stolen market share from compact and SLR cameras as evidenced by the iPhone 4 becoming the most commonly used camera on Flickr.com. And now SLR Canon and Nikon lens attachments are coming on market:
See the The iPhone 4 SLR Mount
So clearly both compact and SLR camera makers have to beware of what mobiles and other iDevices can do in the picture taking world.
Fortunately, optics has been the driving force behind cameras for nearly 200 years – and camera makers know how to make optics work for them. In taking a picture there are three problems – 1)getting enough light 2)to fall on a focal plane 3)without disruption. The first cameras with their large light sensitive film plates first started using a single simple meniscus lens in the late 1820’s to reduce the time to proper exposure by concentrating more light on the plate and with less dispersion for greater sharpness. But the vast improvement that glass lenses achieved still required subjects in a scene to remain motionless for minutes on end and produced serious vignetting problems at the edge of the plate where noticeably less light got through.
Lens optics since then has been the challenge of making glass[and now plastic]lens combinations gather more light and focusing it sharply on either film or now digital sensors. But the glass lenses create their own smaller but difficult problems:
1)chromatic aberration because different color wave lengths do not focus down to the same spot – special chemical inclusions and combo lenses reduce this problem;
2)glass-to-glass[or glass-to-plastic reflectivity] at their joining edges – special thin surface coatings help to reduce this problem;
3)small light dispersion caused by a number of factors – the constant battle line in current camera optics.
But as seen here there has been a steady stream of improvements to lens optics such that wide ranging zoom lense have become as good as fixed focal length lenses except perhaps for the most stringent of requirements. Another factor helping in lens design is the speed and accuracy of auto-focusing electronics. As zoom lens design create multiple focal planes, the auto-focus mechanism switches from one focal plane to the next as the camera is zoomed. One can see this in compact cameras when zooming in and out – the focus lags behind.
Now the challenge is to make lens smaller, lighter yet still able to deliver focused, sharp images on ever larger image sensors. No small feat as the Optic Trends references below indicate. One can see lens optics improving fairly rapidly being pushed by a)the competition between plastic and glass lens suppliers; b)the demands of Solar and medical intrumentation for better optical elements, c)new breakthroughs in micro-element production; and d)better mass molding and production processes around both glass and plastics. Hence it is fair to say that for camera optics one has not seen anything yet.
The trend in cameras and photography is driven by four factors – 1) the relentless improvements in every basic camera technology, especially the smaller yet ever more powerful sensors and graphics processing chips; 2)the move of personal electronics into portable media carrying and now media capturing capabilities in audio, video, and still images particularly on smarphones and tablets; 3)the rise of add-ons lenses from wide angle/macro to zoom lenses on both smartphones and tablets; and 4)finally the rise of apps that extend the capabilities of smartphones and tablets such that they can be used to run SLRs and compact cameras, get and process the images or videos taken, and add them to the Web and social media sites easily. As one can see the camera market is being driven profoundly by nearby competitors that were nowhere to be seen just 5 years ago.
Now the camera makers have been far from standing still. Video and still cameras are merging. Touch screen and ease of use are coming to camera interfaces. Capacity is increasing to thousands of images driven by better SD and SSD storage. Ever bigger and better images and videos using still improving sensors give compact and SLR cameras/videos a substantial lead over the quality of images produced by smartphone and tablets [see here where only the macro lens for an iPhone comes close to matching a compact camera while, the fisheye and zoom lens attachments are truly coke bottles]. Expect the next generation of still cameras to produce even better low-light, HDR, sharper focused and panoramic images. Also expect them to have WiFi connections for remote control and delivering images to tablets, PCs and/or the Web. Finally 3D will come to some compact cameras in novel, wig-wagging ways[and not the cumbersome multiple lens designs].
But the real problem[blessing??] for camera makers is all that computing power that is coming in the very next set of graphics chips. Consider for example the Nvidia Tegra 2 chip will be replaced this Fall by the Tegra 3 with 5 times the computing power but requiring only 70% of the battery power of the Tegra 2[this is typical of the next generation of graphic chip parts]. So the tough problem is deciding how to use all that added computing power. Camera makers will now have to approach apps – the ability for users to either customize how their camera works or pre-and post-process images.
So far camera makers have been timid. Some compact and SLRs allow simple post-processing like cropping, special effects, plus some basic saturation and contrast corrections. Others, as noted above, are offering pre-processing or WiFi capabilities. Ye Editor would love to see compact camera makers do a Sony PS3 approach – add a phone onto a compact camera – the LCD screen is big enough to accomodate easily a touch screen phone interface. Then move photos with app-based editing instantly from camera to target audience. Answer the call of more power by giving cameras a communication capability.
Or become an extraordinary GPS documentation/navigation unit.There is huge requirements in security, insurance and policing here. But most of all become a super-image-taking unit, allowing user customization of all aspects of the image-taking process – audio, video and still. For example allow the user to click for a high resolution still image during video recording. Or tailor the burst/fps rate, easing in or out depending on how fast the scene is changing. Or auto-monitor events during exposure and change the camera settings dynamically with new aperture, focus and/or whitebalance settings. Emulate our eyes.
Finally , expect the current experimentation with camera design and layout like 4:3 or direct-thru to the sensor exposures to be accelerated by the improvements in ever lighter and better glass/plastic molded optics coupled with extra-ordinarily powerful graphics chips and sensors. Thus, expect the camera LCD to become a detachable WiFi enabled touch screen remote exposure controlling unit commanding a motorized tripod/stand. Photography, like so many other consumer crafts have been blessed with unimaginable, portable computing power – which puts them in the infancy of an image-taking revolution. photography and still/video cameras will always be around because they give much more creative control than mobiles like smartphones and tablets can afford to allow for in their hardware. The question is how many users will be creative [camera users primarily] versus casual/consumable users[mobile users primarily]? Hard to say as photo technologies continue to improve rapidly.
Camera Optics – wikipedia article with all the camera optics fit to print
Camerapedia – Anatomy of a lens explains the basics of camera lens design factors and principles
Confidence in 3D – what determines the relaibility of 3D stereoscopic observations/renditions
Image and Movie Security – lock key code is embedded into the image optics