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What the future holds for smartphone cameras

Posted: , by Victor H.

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The quick auto-focus remains one of the key advantages and reasons to buy a DSLR (or a compact interchangeable camera). But smartphones are quickly catching up. The HTC One launched with an extremely fast camera that takes only 200 milliseconds to lock focus.

However, a radical change in the technology will allow for even faster auto-focus acquisition times. The technology is called MEMS, short for microelectromechanical technology and differs drastically from the current voice coil motors (VCMs) used in smartphone cameras. It is the same technology that brought us microphone, gyros and barometers in a tiny smartphone. It is extremely precise - made in clean rooms just like all other chips - and is hundreds of times more power efficient.

Voice coil motors are the current technology and they employ technologies that are a bit dated now. Auto-focusing in VCMs happens when a current is sent through a coil causing the moving elements of a camera to move in the direction of a magnet. There are a few set steps for the moving elements and at each one the camera evaluates the focus to determine whether the image is in focus or not (if not it just moves one step further and re-evaluates). It sounds complicated because it is. Plus, with that many steps locking focus could take a whole second. It is also imprecise and noisy.

MEMS technology on the other hand can focus nearly 7 times faster and is much smaller. It uses electrostatic force to draw to solid-state comb-shaped surfaces together, but they never touch and degradation takes much longer. Instead of having multiple moving elements you only have one with extremely quick auto-focus and power consumption of 1mW, hundreds of times less than VCM modules.

Companies developing MEMS cameras include Tessera and DigitalOptics, and the latter showed an extremely slim, 5.1mm 8-megapixel “mems|cam” camera module at MWC. It is ready to ship to Chinese smartphone makers. At a price of $25 apiece though it is nearly 25% more expensive than camera modules used in devices like the Galaxy S4. To get a clear understanding of the benefits of having the MEMS system, take a look at a demonstration of the camera at MWC right below.

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posted on 29 Mar 2013, 11:10

1. lyndon420 (Posts: 4963; Member since: 11 Jul 2012)

I'll take a Lytro. That's cool tech.

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 11:21

4. the_s2 (Posts: 239; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)

As for now, lytro resolution is something to worry about.

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 13:53

12. TheMan (Posts: 493; Member since: 21 Sep 2012)

Lytro would be nice. I wonder if that would help much of the low light shortcoming many have.

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 11:13 15

2. reuben (Posts: 6; Member since: 29 Mar 2013)

all smartphone cameras have improved except the sony phones

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 11:15 8

3. Dimitru (Posts: 40; Member since: 10 Feb 2012)

duh.. sony is the first one with 13 mp camera

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 12:32 11

9. Nathan_ingx (Posts: 4292; Member since: 07 Mar 2012)

So what? The image quality isn't as superb as it sounds!
And what if Sony came up with 13 megapixel? Nokia came up with 41 megapixel sensor...try comparing it the the big dogs if you must.

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 21:46 1

24. Dimitru (Posts: 40; Member since: 10 Feb 2012)

up to you...i just disagree with reuben... 13 mp camera is a fact for him

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 12:34 3

10. adjou (Posts: 106; Member since: 06 Jul 2010)

Sony really need to focus on the software side of things. They have the sensors to take great pictures but software gets worst and worst ever year... :S

Really dont get how Sony is still behind other competitors when most of them uses Sony sensors

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 14:13 3

14. Droid_X_Doug (Posts: 5993; Member since: 22 Dec 2010)

Sony's sensors are used in most of the flagship smartphones. Sony also supplies many of the high-end DLSR manufacturers with imaging sensors. As you posted, Sony falls down in the software area. It is a shame, because Sony really has top notch imaging hardware.

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 13:29 1

11. aokde (Posts: 186; Member since: 09 Jul 2012)

first HDR video is sony. that's not improvement?

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 14:10 1

13. Droid_X_Doug (Posts: 5993; Member since: 22 Dec 2010)

Others are providing HDR video as well. The difference is in the quality of the video. Sad to say, but Sony's video quality doesn't lead the pack.

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 14:33

15. aokde (Posts: 186; Member since: 09 Jul 2012)

others provide software HDR, sony provides hardware HDR (as in hardwired)
and sony's video quality is not bad actually (not considering nokias stabilization ofcourse..)


posted on 29 Mar 2013, 11:27

5. alfalf (Posts: 6; Member since: 11 Dec 2012)

nice article. i realty don't know

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 11:35

6. reuben (Posts: 6; Member since: 29 Mar 2013)

dimitru which camera is better overall the one in xperia z or galaxy s3 not the s4 the s3 ok. can u tell me

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 11:54 3

7. shreyas.s666 (Posts: 82; Member since: 24 Aug 2012)

"In 2011, the iPhone grew to become the most popular camera on Flickr" really?

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 12:02

8. DontHateOnS60 (Posts: 871; Member since: 20 Apr 2009)

Lytro is cool, but it would be nice to be able to disable autofocus on every phone BEFORE you take the photo. Sometimes the situation calls for that, and you wish you had an EDoF lense. I know some apps will let you do this, but it'd be nice if all phones had this straight from the factory.

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 14:39 4

16. TheBitterTruth (unregistered)

You forgot the champ "Pureview"

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 17:46 1

19. sbw44 (Posts: 433; Member since: 04 Dec 2012)

Its Victor H dude! As soon as I saw his name I knew Nokia won't even be mentioned!

posted on 30 Mar 2013, 02:10

27. TheBitterTruth (unregistered)

Its been 2 years now and there is no phone to challenge 808 pureview -_-
Come on Phonearena atleast accept the fact!

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 15:15 6

17. pureviewuser (Posts: 501; Member since: 11 Nov 2012)

Lets see what nokia is bringing

posted on 30 Mar 2013, 02:13 1

28. TheBitterTruth (unregistered)

Another unbeatable Pureview phone to crash the plastics phones :)
Dislikes coming!
BSI sensor + OIS + Floating Lens + Some software customization = MONSTER!

posted on 30 Mar 2013, 11:04

32. TheBitterTruth (unregistered)

I told you Sammy fanobys will dislike my comments! :)
even the 8mp iPhone crashed the Galaxy S4's 13mp in blind camera test. How about the 13mp iPhone or the 13mp pureview?

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 17:09 2

18. shikroi (Posts: 187; Member since: 24 Sep 2012)

How did you write an an article about recent camera innovations in the phone industry and the possible future without mentioning the 808?

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 18:07 2

20. sbw44 (Posts: 433; Member since: 04 Dec 2012)

Typical Nokia Hater! nowhere its mentioned about Pureview Stage 1 (Oversampling) or Stage 2 ( Floating Lens and OIS) and the fact that Nokia is working on Pureview Stage 3!

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 19:22 1

22. shikroi (Posts: 187; Member since: 24 Sep 2012)

He mentioned OIS, he just didn't associate it with nokia.

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 19:07 1

21. pyradark (Posts: 882; Member since: 10 Jun 2012)

Thats ok!! We all heard the new cybershot phone is in works for Q3. So this is it for sony

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 19:55 4

23. Edmund (Posts: 656; Member since: 13 Jul 2012)

I highly doubt that NIKON would damage their brand by associating it with android/google/nexus

posted on 29 Mar 2013, 23:57 1

25. techloverNYC (Posts: 601; Member since: 20 Nov 2012)

smart phones are starting to replace alot of old techs.

A smartphone can do: flashlight, heart monitor, tv, credit card,map, music player, work out monitor,and even more

That used to require expensive individual devices.

posted on 30 Mar 2013, 00:51

26. Trex95 (Posts: 1101; Member since: 03 Mar 2013)

There's a rumor around that Apple and Google going to buy Kodak?

posted on 30 Mar 2013, 02:14

29. TheBitterTruth (unregistered)

Apple and google?
How on earth both of them (rivals) can buy a single company named 'KODAK'?

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