Camera Technology Trends for the Next 2-3 Years

The various underlying technologies shaping today’s cameras are undergoing profound transitions just as market pressures have companies looking for new capabilities to bring  to market. It is mostly a match made in heaven for most camera consumers. The result is a continuing and even accelerating stream of innovations in the photo and camera world. We have already witnessed the transition from 100 year old chemical film cameras to digital photography in the past ten years. You hardly need to ask Eastman Kodak or FujiFilm the meaning of “disruptive” change. Now the worlds of compact  and video cameras are experiencing the same “disruptive” change as my Pansonic Lumix compact camera displaces my old Canon video camera.

Technologies such as lens miniaturization, ever increasing microchip capabilities, and improving battery capacity with shrinking weight have helped make the iPhone the most popular camera used on Flickr. There has been a competitive chain reaction in the camera industry. And so 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. 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.

Tablet and Smartphone Cameras Drive SLR  Camera Features

Smartphone/tablet cameras and apps now drive compact camera feature sets. One can see new camera features in smartphones, 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 improvement 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. The graphics processing chips used in digital cameras to process and store the images taken have seen a similar 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 MPixel capacity are a steroscopic chip and a new upsidedown favrication 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 at the photofinishes.com. 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 the upside down design or “back illuminated” sensor chips. Again this is a 2008 chip sensor breakthough. But the idea is quite simple – move the CMOS sensor layer up above  the wiring layers on the chip:

Backlight or UpsideDown sensor chip design

The resulst 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. The following shows hows how Exmor enhances images with HDR multiple reads.

http://image-sensors-world.blogspot.com/2011/06/sony-view-dr-hdr-technology.html

Already these HDR capabilities have been added to some recent Sony compact cameras using Exmor sensor chips.

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 the those from Nvidia and Qualcomm. The smartphone/tablet chips provide not just huge graphis processing capabilities but also  GPS, WiFi, multi-touch screen operations, and even phone/messaging features as well which camera makers could selectively apply to their models not only for value add but also to take back market share. There are examples of detachable iPhone zoom camera lenses and this technology could get very good very  fast[see optics improvements below]. So camera makers may find that they are thrust into and  are really a part of the iDevice and smartphone market 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.  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 through 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 mayebe even apps to be be download to a camera to add new functionaility. Clearly the camera makers have to naswer 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 huge 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.

Battery Trends

This reviewer can remember when getting 60 images 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 image and processing 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.

See here for more details how Li-ion batteries  work

Lithium ion batteries have become the workhorse power source for electronics replacing Nickel metal hydride and other rechargable batteries. There are three reasons for Li-ion succeding. First, Li-ions are the lightest of metals, so the weight of Li-ion batteries is notably less than most other. Second, the lighter Li-ions diffuse better than competitors, key to the battery charge and discharge process. Third, Li-ion batteries are comparatively new and so the opportunity for improvements in performance are greater.

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 . Recent research on Li-ion batteries promise 10 times improvement in charging speed and greater capcity emerging  in 2-5 years. 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 a 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 smartphone and tablet cameras. 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 camera 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 iclusions 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.

Summary

The trend in cameras 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 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 camera in novel, wig-wagging ways[and not the cumbersome multiple lens designs].

But the real problem 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 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. 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.  Cameras, like so many other devices, have been blessed with unimaginable, portable computing power – which puts them in the infancy of  an image-taking revolution.

Optics Trends:
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

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