When we pull out a cell phone to snap a picture, there is a lot going on inside that device which we take for granted. Take, for instance, the new iPhone 6 Plus. Apple engineers have modestly improved the camera specifications from the last model. Hundreds of millions was likely spent by Apple to improve its camera just a few percent from the previous model. They’ve upped the capability to an 8MP camera and reduced the size of the phone, in terms of its thickness. But when you look at the ability of the phone to function as a traditional camera that captures crisp images, it is still lacking…
If you used a simple single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, the quality of the resulting image is miles ahead of anything in any smartphone on the market right now. iPhones would need about a 50MP camera to compete with a middle of the road SLR.
Smartphone optical engineers are still a long way from constructing a product that can compete with the traditional SLR cameras. But you can bet there is some engineer in an obscure lab working on cracking that nut right now.
To get SLR clarity in a smartphone, at the granular level, there are two ways of going about it: Either you up the hardware, or you fiddle with the software. Both options come with their own challenges…
Is it Possible?
Is it possible to relegate the perfection of captured images to software?
Algolux is a company that has its roots deeply embedded in the halls of academia and research. It was founded by Felix Heide, a Ph.D grad, while conducting research at the University of British Columbia in the wake of a paper he wrote a few years back on the viability and structure of a virtual lens.
What Heide has done is used advanced programming to allow smaller cameras (those in smartphones) to increase the quality of images. By going after the software within cameras, as opposed to the hardware, Heide’s Algolux may reduce future R&D spending for increasing camera effectiveness.
Simply, if your hardware technology can only muster up clarity equivalent to 8MP, one must rely on the software to create better clarity and granularity. The technological advantage this software brings to the cell phone market is inestimable for now, and depends on how far this technology can be leveraged.
However, for just the beginning, without even as much as a proof of concept, the company has already attracted a round of Series A funding. That’s how good, and desperately desired by the market, its ‘concept’ is.
One of the key success factors in today’s mobile market is to make the phone as light and as thin as possible. This creates tremendous challenges for optical engineers looking to improve smartphone camera quality, especially from a hardware standpoint.
The smartphone camera‘s function is important, of course, but if the quality of the phone’s image capture is left to the performance and technology of the hardware, then two things result: First, the R&D costs skyrocket. Second, the phone gets fatter. Digital SLR cameras at this point are large and bulky, compared to a cell phone. To beat SLR’s at the image capture game, mobile phone developers cannot simply scale the phone to the same thickness. In light of that, Algolux aims to solve this conundrum at precisely the right point in the technology development cycle by improving optical software.
Developers, armed with Algolux’s technology, may be able to approach the market in two different ways. First, they can go after the image conscious crowd and give them same-sized phones that we are accustom to, with improved camera performance; or they can go after the size-conscious crowd and give them a smaller phone with the same image capture capability that we currently have in, for example, the iPhone 6 Plus. Which nut they choose to crack is not the point. What takes the cake here is that Algolux may be opening up more options for image capture technology in mobile devices. On top of that, Algolux’s technology may transform virtual imaging across an array of industries.
Virtual imaging (VI) is a burgeoning niche in the optical industry, especially in the hybrid area of optical software. Look past the consumer industry, which is significant in itself, and you’ll discover the potential for VI in the medical diagnostic industry and other remote and virtual applications, including VR and gaming; virtual imaging increases the articulation of the image and generates a higher level of experience. Another large industry where this could make an impact is in the military.
Algolux’s technology is also being looked at from a retrospective nature, but it is unclear at this point if they can grandfather the software into the existing hardware. If they can, then a lot of the functionality in, let’s say, an iPhone or iPad iOS update, could significantly upgrade the camera in such a device. But, perhaps that’s just a pipe dream as it would make no financial sense for Apple to do that unless they charged a fee for updates. It would, however, make a lot more sense to expand the future product line.