Column: Smartphones Get the Camera Love

Maximum PC Staff

How compact cameras are getting the shaft

When new camera technology appears first in smartphones instead of in cameras, it’s yet another sign that mobile computing is driving innovation. Development dollars tend to favor the most popular or most profitable products, and right now smartphones and tablets are getting beaucoups love.

The latest example is a new image sensor from Aptina Imaging, a Micron spinoff in Silicon Valley. Aptina has introduced its first CMOS sensor using the company’s Clarity+ technology, which takes a different approach to digital imaging. Clarity+ sensors will most likely appear first in smartphones before trickling down to cameras and other devices.

Why smartphones first? Because phonecams have become the most popular cameras among amateurs and are even making inroads among professionals. IDC market analysts estimate that compact-digicam sales will tumble to 80 million units this year, from 132 million in 2010. It’s so discouraging that Olympus killed its entire compact-camera product line. But my dayjob employer (The Linley Group) forecasts that 987 million smartphones will be sold this year. Which product would you target for a new technology?

Clarity+ changes the way an image sensor reproduces color. Digital sensors actually “see” in monochrome. Tiny red, green, and blue filters overlay the sensor sites that correspond to pixels, and these filters create the RGB primary colors from which billions of hues are derived. Since the 1970s, almost all sensors have used a color-filter pattern known as a Bayer matrix. Clarity+ uses a different pattern that doubles the sensor’s effective sensitivity.

Bayer alternatives aren’t new, and they often have drawbacks. Aptina claims to have overcome those fl aws and is showing sample photos to support its claims. But the significant news is that the new technology will appear in smartphones within a year or so, and only later may come to cameras. The stars have realigned.

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