Three smartphone camera trends to watch for in the future

by: Rob TriggsMarch 16, 2016
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Smartphone camera technology has grown in leaps and bounds in the past couple of years and continues to be a major selling point in the flagship segment of the market. The industry certainly isn’t done pushing the boundaries yet, so here’s a short list of upcoming smartphone camera technologies to keep tabs on.

Note5_vs_LGV10_17See also: Best Android smartphone cameras (March 2016)30

Superior optical image stabilization

OPPO and MEMS Drive Inc. have been demonstrating their new SmartSensor image stabilization technology since MWC 2016. SmartSensor is a MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system) based image stabilizer for smartphones, which also claims to be the industry’s first sub-pixel-level optical image stabilizer.

SmartSensor was produced as a result of close R&D collaboration between the two companies and promises to improve smartphone camera performance and image quality. Optical image stabilization technologies inside smartphones commonly shift the lens to cut down on motion shaking using Voice Coil Motor (VCM) actuators. This MEMS alternative actually moves the image sensor, more like professional DSLR cameras, allowing for stabilization to extend from two to three axes as well. The video below shows how the technology allows for free movement of a sensor.

The MEMS-based approach offers a number of advantages over VCM. Three axis stabilization allows for motion compensation of pitch, yaw, and roll. It is also considerably faster and more accurate than other smartphone OIS technologies, compensating for vibrations in 15 ms compared to 50 ms for lens-based technologies. Power consumption is also much lower, coming in at around just as 10mW, which is approximately 50 times lower than lens-based OIS.

MEMS+Drive

Oppo’s SmartSensor technology claims to offer an accuracy of 0.3µm when correcting vibrations, while a typical lens-based OIS system manages 3µm-5µm. Given that your typical smartphone image sensor pixels are between 1µm and 2µm in size, this offers sub-pixel levels of accuracy which will greatly reduce any notable effects of motion in an image or video.

OPPO’s approach can apparently correct for up to 1.5 degrees of motion, which might not be as good as top-notch cameras but is certainly a step up for smartphones. The technology can be implemented in sensor sizes ranging from 1/1.8″ for high-end models to 1/3″ for mid-range handsets.

Dual camera “optical” zoom

A number of smartphones have implemented dual camera setups in recent years, allowing for refocusing of images post capture, 3D capture, and automatic switching between lens types, such as the wide-angle option with the LG G5. As useful as these features can be, they haven’t really pushed up the quality of smartphone photography. However, Corephotonics’ dual camera optical zoom technology could be the step up that some have been looking for.

Corephotonics has been developing its dual camera zoom technology for a couple of years and has recently been demonstrating its latest iteration. This design features two 13 megapixel sensors, one regular sensor and the other based on a propriety design that “folds light”, resulting in a 5x “optical” zoom.

Corephotonics dual sensor Image Fusion

I say “optical” because the company’s technology doesn’t actually rely on lenses or traditional mechanical optical zoom techniques. Instead, the technology is based on software algorithms that piece a zoomed in picture together. The company also has a 3x optical zoom model that uses a 13MP and 8MP sensor combination, one with a wide angled lens and another telephoto lens.

While we know that traditional digital zooms offer nothing more than a more pixelated image to look at, Corephotonics’ technology actually manages to retain image quality while zooming in. See the picture below.

Traditional digital smartphone zoom on the left verses Corephotonics optical zoom on the right.

CNET Traditional digital smartphone zoom on the left verses Corephotonics optical zoom on the right.

Furthermore, the digital algorithms and dual image sensors can also be used to improve low light performance and remove noise. The latest demonstration also showcases a software based form of optical image stabilization that appears to work very well.

Corephotonics’ cameras already work with some of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors and the company is also working to bring the tech to Samsung’s Exynos and Mediatek’s platforms.

sony-logo-aa-2See also: 2017 to be the year of dual-lens cameras, says Sony4

Forget megapixels, lenses are in

Samsung has opted for a 12 megapixel image sensor in the Galaxy S7, dropping down from 16 megapixels in the Galaxy S6, and some of the best cameras in the industry, such as the Nexus 6P, are also making use of smaller megapixel counts to accommodate larger pixel cells. Simultaneously, Chinese super-mid-tier handsets have caught up in the megapixel race, so manufacturers are going to need to find new ways to differentiate their products. Lenses might just be the next battle ground.

If you know a little about camera technology, you’ll probably understand that a good lens is as important as a good sensor. Imperfections in a lens can ruin the light by the time it reaches the sensor.

Interestingly enough, Huawei recently announced a partnership with Leica, the German company known for making some of the best cameras and lenses in the business. While it’s not exactly clear whether Leica will be directly providing Huawei with lenses or working together on R&D for a different camera technology, you can bet that the brand name will feature heavily in Huawei’s announcement for whatever product the two have been working on.

“Leica is a legend in the world of photography; we believe no other manufacturer has revolutionised the industry as much as them. We, Huawei, take the utmost pride in exceptional quality and Leica is in a class of its own in its sector.” – Huawei

The downside of these larger sensors and better lenses is related to size, the biggest limiting factor for smartphone photography. Fortunately, a number of research teams are working on developing thinner lenses too, which would be a perfect fit for smartphones.

Engineers from the University of Utah have created an ultra-thin lens that is ten times thinner than the width of a human hair but still manages to bend light to a single point like regular lenses. The lenses were created using optical lithography, are apparently quite easy to manufacturer at low cost, and can be created out of common materials such as glass or plastic. There is still work to be done before these lenses can offer the image quality demanded by the photography industry, but the hope is to ramp up their quality and usages over the next five years.

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New, thinner components are crucial for keeping camera’s flat in slim smartphones.

Similarly, researchers at The Australian National University have just created the world’s thinnest lens, one two-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. Single layers of molybdenum disulphide, just 0.7 nanometres thick, were discovered to have remarkable optical properties, which were used to built a 10-micron radius lens. The researchers suggest that this type of lens could be a useful breakthrough for flexible displays and small form factor cameras, but there’s still a lot of development to be done here.

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That concludes our little list of upcoming pieces of camera technology that could shake up the smartphone industry, but what is more important is what consumers are actually after. What camera features would you like to see brought to the Android handset market?

  • XaErO

    Excellent info !! very fruitful !! Hope all this awesome tech see light in real world.

    • KeyserSoze

      123…

  • saksham

    i just want the crispiest sharpest image in every environment possible idc if its wide angle or dual camera

  • shernjr

    this is great, but it still wouldn’t be comparable to dslr/mirrorless right ? (not withstanding convenience and portability + price of smartphones)

    • Hans Pedersen

      Of course it wouldn’t. :D There’s a lot more space for a sensor or lens to move in a DSLR camera, room for a lot more battery to allow a more powerful motor and such. And to be fair, the DSLR business is still split on whether IBIS or OIS is the better. Each has obvious pro’s and con’s.

  • Jon Duke

    To this day, I still don’t get the obsession with phone cameras. It’s a phone camera…

    • Daggett Beaver

      Me neither. If I want a professional quality camera, I’ll buy a professional quality camera.

      • So you want a 2MP/f5.6 640×480 cam with a plastic lens in your phone? And every one from now on…?

        None of this is a question of whether cell cams are more capable instruments than DSLR’s (which they are in some circumstances due to size, particular software considerations, etc., but not as light gathering and resolving instruments) (nor to emerging new classes of imagers), but rather, that when you have a photo opp, that you have something available at nearly all times that allows you capture a decent image….

    • KeyserSoze

      “To this day, I still don’t get the obsession with phone cameras. It’s a phone camera…”

      Can you be any dumber with your retarded comment? Are you aware that a large number of videos on YouTube that shows police wrong-doings, racial violence, crimes, fist fights, car accidents, natural disasters, etc. are recorded with a phone camera?

      It’s a vital tool that allows people to see (in crystal clear high-definition) many important happenings they weren’t physically there to witness. It allows immediate on-the-spot capture of events that professional news people can’t capture because they can’t get to the scene fast enough.

      If you’re too stupid to figure out any use for a phone camera, you’d best keep your ignorance to yourself and shut the hell up… let the adults talk in peace.

      • Jon Duke

        So, what you are telling me is that cameras are great because people are victim of bullying and they can prove it since they filmed it. To illustrate the point, you’ve decided to bully me yourself by trying to insult my intelligence. Now, maybe it’s hard for you to read properly or maybe you see words I didn’t see when I wrote but I don’t see where I said they were useless. They are useful but we’ve reached a point where I can record in 4k. We don’t need to obsess and make it “even more 4k”.

        • KeyserSoze

          “To illustrate the point, you’ve decided to bully me yourself by trying to insult my intelligence.”

          Real men can’t be “bullied” by random strangers on the internet. Only weak little wussies cry about such trivial things.

          “We don’t need to obsess and make it “even more 4k”

          Mobile VR is here, 4K resolution or higher is good for tomorrow’s VR systems, quit whining about things you don’t know how to use.

          • Jon Duke

            4k cameras… Not displays.

            You really are a moron. I’m not arguing with you. Enjoy your life.

          • KeyserSoze

            “4k cameras… Not displays.”

            Look dipsht, without 4K cameras to record 4K videos, what’s the point of having 4K display or vice versa? Can’t have one without the other, they both go hand in hand.

          • Jon Duke

            I love you

  • hubert

    This will be the future – black silkon sensor – if some one use this in smartphone camera you can forgot about normal camera and all the stuff to this point. The world of photography will change forever.

  • Jerry Rich

    Do we need all that when we already have perfection in the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge?

    • Žydrūnas

      It’s great but not perfect. As far as smartphone cameras are beyond DSLR cameras changes can be made to upgrade the quality we have in our mobile phones today.

  • randomdog

    Variable aperture