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Reader Forum: How digital imaging is changing mobile again

There’s no doubt about it: Smartphones have become the world’s favorite cameras

Approximately 1 trillion images will be created this year, according to Josh Haftel, who manages mobile photography solutions at Adobe: that comes to over 31,000 new images per second. Of the 5.8 billion cameras in the world, 5.5 billion are in smartphones, Chun Juan, editor-in-chief of PC Home China, said recently at SanDisk’s Future Proof Storage conference. People form very personal bonds with their smartphones in part because they use it to record, remember and share the moments of their life. It’s really more camera than phone.

We’re now on the cusp of another massive change in mobile imaging where we will see the gap in performance and versatility between smartphones and standalone cameras narrow and, for practical purposes, start to fade away. Those who latch on to the phenomenon early will position themselves to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Bulk for bits

The ultimate idea is to replace bulk with bits. It’s not possible to graft a hefty 200mm-400mm optical zoom lens onto a pocket-sized smartphone. The size of imagers contained in cellphones is only around one-third the size of those in cameras, potentially limiting pixel performance. But large amounts of storage capacity, faster processors, rapid transfer speeds and algorithms that compensate for the differences size makes in creative, unique ways can be incorporated.

Leveraging more of the potential of digital technology opens the door to shooting in raw formats, taking 4K Ultra HD video or stitching “live” pictures from sequences. Low-light shooting, one of the big drawbacks in mobile, will dramatically improve with raw. (See an example from photographer Dave Newton here.) With high-speed writing and caching, smartphone makers can boost the number of images captured in burst-mode shooting by up to 15% while dramatically increasing frame rates for video.

Another big phenomenon is computational photography. Computational photography algorithms mesh multiple images with spatial information collected by cameras to bring greater depth to pictures, similar to how telephoto lenses and manual aperture and shutter settings do on standalone cameras. Computational photography also permits users to adjust the focus — blurring the background or making objects in the foreground more distinct — after the picture is taken to improve the quality. The means to get to the goal are different, but the end results are effectively the same.

The big picture

The emphasis on improving photo performance arises out of a need to marry diametrically opposed trends. On one hand, the smartphone market remains vibrant. Approximately 1.5 billion smartphones will ship in 2015, according to analyst estimates, and billions of people in India and Africa will become first-time users in the coming years.  

On the other hand, customers also have high — and escalating — expectations. They want phones to be thin, competitively priced and provide phenomenal performance. Take a look at some photos or videos from three or four years ago: they might seem grainy or waxy. If that once technological marvel came out today, it probably wouldn’t sell.

To get out of this dilemma, manufacturers only really have three options: A: make bigger phones; B: deliver only incremental improvements to picture quality; or C: leverage the digital firepower underneath the bezel to deliver a new experience within the same form factor.

If you haven’t guessed, the correct answer is “C.”

Creative differences

Smartphones designed to perform at these levels, of course, will sport fairly healthy configurations. Phones with 128 gigabytes of embedded memory represent the high-water mark now. In a few years, phones with 256 GB or more storage will be easy to find. Raw images can take up to 40 GB of memory and be four-times or larger than a JPEG. I recently visited with some film studio execs looking at ways to deliver premium content directly to handsets. A single 4K Ultra HD movie distributed from a studio could take up to 80 GB. A quick scan the spec sheet for some of these are like looking at a notebook.

There is no one-size-fits-all, however, for implementing these techniques, which is great news for manufacturers because it gives them an opportunity to set themselves apart as well as differentiate between their entry-level and premium phones. Expect to see variety when it comes to raw images. Some companies will insert software for automatically processing these images in the background while others will come up with ways for consumers to edit photos right on the touch screen. Interface creativity will be critical.

In fact, we may even see smartphones surpass standalone cameras in popularizing emerging applications like 3D imaging and virtual reality because these new apps rely on the same technological foundation used to implement computational photography.

Picture this

Will this new generation of smartphone cameras eliminate the SLR camera? No. Instead, they will further strengthen the bond that exists between people and their smartphones. We will see more pictures, more creativity and even new use cases: imagine a smartphone that could capture, edit and assemble quick video vignettes with scenes from your day complimented by a soundtrack in your MP3 library.

A trillion is just the start.

Christopher Bergey is the VP and GM of mobile and connected solutions at SanDisk. This article expresses the views of the author and not necessarily that of his employer.

Editor’s Note: In an attempt to broaden our interaction with our readers we have created this Reader Forum for those with something meaningful to say to the wireless industry. We want to keep this as open as possible, but we maintain some editorial control to keep it free of commercials or attacks. Please send along submissions for this section to our editors at: [email protected]

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