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Pelican Imaging's 16-lens array camera: the next generation of smartphone camera technology

Nokia and Qualcomm are the latest investors in Pelican Imaging's new array camera technology, which aims to set a new benchmark for smartphone photography.
May 3, 2013
Pelican Imaging camera

I don’t know about you, but my smartphone is my primary piece of kit when it comes to taking photographs. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert photographer, but I do want my pictures to turn out half presentable, look clear, and perhaps most importantly actually be in focus. Sadly that’s often not how my pictures turn out, especially in low light conditions. Like it or not, smartphone cameras are the most common method of photography used by most of us, but the technology has taken significant leaps and bounds over the past few years to improve the quality of our digital snaps.

However, the next generation in smartphone camera technology could soon be upon us, thanks to the developers over at Pelican Imaging, who have put together a 16-lens camera array. Its new technology promises to significantly boost the quality of our pictures and also brings with it a few interesting new features into the world of smartphone photography.

A potential game changer

Rather than a single lens, Pelican’s array uses a four-by-four grid of individual lenses which are then combined to create a single image. Interestingly each of the lenses captures only a single colour (red, green or blue), rather than the full spectrum, which is something professional grade video cameras have been doing for quite a while. The idea behind this is that it eradicates the noise problems, which result from “cross-talk”, when capturing wide ranges of light in a single lens. Even whilst keeping the number of megapixels the same, images should appear much sharper than before.

Technology buffs amongst you will probably also have noticed the implications for 3D image capture as well. We’ve already seen a few handsets that ship with dual cameras on the back, but this technology will allow for even clearer depth perception. Taking picture from slightly different locations will also allow for superior focusing and even refocusing of images based on the available depth information, by using some clever software. Take a look at this simple adjustment carried out by Adobe using a similar tiny “sub-lens” technology.

Pelican Imaging’s version of this focusing technology works using an averaging algorithm. The different images are aggregated to focus on a specific spot whilst the rest of the picture is blurred naturally. Here’s another couple of examples, this time using Pelican’s technology; three different levels of focus obtained from a single picture, and the lighting isn’t half bad either.

Pelican Imaging focus 2
Pelican Imaging focus 1

But won’t 16 times as many images mean 16 times the file size? Well apparently not, as Pelican’s software will translate the captured image into a JPEG just 20% larger than a regular picture with an equivalent pixel density. The file will also retain focus information, allowing the user to readjust the image if they want to.

All of this technology will be squeezed into a slimmer form factor as well, allowing for better image quality in even thinner phones. Color me totally impressed.

Pelican Imaging has been working on this technology for a while and has signed up a bunch of investors already. But perhaps most significantly, just a few days ago Nokia became the first handset manufacturer to back Pelican, which means that there could be a new smartphone on the way. We all know that Nokia loves it’s camera technology, remember the 41 megapixel 808 PureView?

The operating system may have been a little dated, but the Pureview 808 definitely took impressive snaps for a smartphone.

Nokia seems convinced that this is where camera technology is heading, and clearly wants to be onboard early:

[quote qtext=”Pelican Imaging’s computational camera solutions are at the cutting edge of mobile camera technologies. We believe they’re positioned to lead the next wave in video and image capture; they’re a great addition to our portfolio of innovators in the imaging space.” qperson=”” qsource=”” qposition=”center”]

So it seems likely that Nokia could be the first handset manufacturer to produce a smartphone using this technology. Although Pelican’s CEO, Chris Pickett, wouldn’t talk specifics when asked about which manufacturers the company is working with, he did confirm that a product is currently being tested by manufacturers and is scheduled to be one of a few new smartphones launching in 2014. It could be a new high end Nokia smartphone vying for the photography crown once more, but until we have any more details we’ll leave the speculating there.

Bring it to Android already

By now you’re probably sold on this pretty cool piece of technological innovation. But there’s the not so pleasant prospect of having to leave our beloved Android behind in favour of Windows if we want to enjoy better quality pictures. That might be a deal breaker for some.

Fortunately an Android implementation of the 16-lens array is still on the cards, as a quote from Pelican Imaging leads me to believe that its technology is still completely open to use by other companies, rather than being a Nokia exclusive. The company’s chief technology officer, Kartik Venkataraman, has also been pretty tight lipped about who the company is working with, but he did reveal the following:

[quote qtext=”Our technology is not mutually exclusive with Nokia’s. We can take elements of what they’re doing and improve what we can do.” qperson=”” qsource=”” qposition=”center”]

In other words, Pelican Imaging is still in control of its technology, they haven’t been bought out by Nokia. It’s simply a partnership where the two are contributing to improving the technology. Whilst it’s likely that Nokia will have first access to the new camera array, the door is still wide open for Android handset manufacturers to leap onboard at a later date.

There’s also another hint that this technology could be making its way into the hands of the Android community at some point, as Qualcomm also backed the company at the same time as Nokia, acting through its venture investment group Qualcomm Ventures. Now we know that Qualcomm Snapdragon chips powered all of the handsets in Nokia’s Lumia range, so it’s a good bet that they’re working on a new handset with Nokia on this too.

But Qualcomm SoCs also power a huge range of Android devices. In fact, one of the more recent tech demos showing off Pelican Imaging’s camera technology was shown running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 powered Android tablet. Skip to 02:13 to see it in action, courtesy of Engadget.

You can see some of the re-focusing technology that we talked about earlier and some really quick editing options thanks to the depth information included in the image files. Post-processing software to put all these pictures together is an equally important part of the technology as the hardware and requires some pretty serious processing power to do it. The software shown off by Qualcomm was worked on by Pelican, so we know that at the very least Pelican Imaging has been developing software with Android in mind. A very positive sign, but sadly nothing concrete as of yet.

This is still early days for the fledgling technology, but it looks unbelievably promising. At some point in the future we’ll hopefully see a new range of top of the line Android smartphones using this tech, and at the very least we’ll be able to see what it can really do when the first handsets are released at some point in 2014. Keep your eyes peeled for more details in the future.