Clustered mobile camera lenses promise 52-megapixel resolution and after-shot focusing
Fri 17 Apr 2015
Palo Alto startup Light is aiming to develop next-gen mobile phone camera systems that use multiple lenses to create very high resolution images, and which gather so much information from a single ‘shot’ that an image can be focused after it is taken.
Light will sign a deal with Foxconn next Tuesday to license its technology for mobile devices, with the aim of RTM product becoming available next year.
The system employs multiple lenses very close to each other which are combined in software to create a single high-resolution image, with the kind of HDRI-style after-shot flexibility which usually requires deeper and bulkier lenses or ‘bracketing’ – sequential photos taken in rapid succession, unsuitable for all but static subjects.
Light’s lens-cluster approach to generating hi-res photos is a more mobile-friendly take on ‘light-field’-based systems – most notably developed by Ren Ng’s Lytro company – which require layered lenses sitting on top of each other, rather than adjacent ones.
CGI-mock-up pictured above
With slim build ever-paramount in mobile phone designs, lenses of mobile cameras have inadequate space to fit lens racks, and zoom functionality is therefore commonly digital rather than actual. Light’s lens cluster technique promises 52-megapixel results – not in itself a guarantee of increased image quality (Apple’s iPhone 5-6 uses 8-megapixels very effectively), but a far wider canvas from which to ‘crop’ a zoomed image without degradation.
Most interestingly the Light system, effectively a 4-8-shot simultaneous bracket, allows for focusing after an image is taken, a system pioneered at Stanford in 2004 by the founder of the far deeper-bodied Lytro range of cameras.
Negatively, any Light-based cluster arrangement in mobile technology is likely to add $50-60 to the market price and have an ergonomic or size cost.
Currently the Light system is still in prototype stage, with no show-model proof of concepts yet made available to the press.
Perhaps the biggest question for Light’s prospects in the broad consumer mobile market is whether end-users are willing to endure the extra cost or bulk of high-resolution mobile phone cameras – existing systems already produce images so large that they are almost inevitably scaled down in any online sharing environment – and whether post-facto focusing is a substantial enough function to gain market traction for the system. Additionally there is the possibility of photo combination proving a drag on battery life – certainly the processing of HDRI imagery is one of the most resource-intensive image-editing tasks.
Light-field or ‘Plenoptic’ photography dates back to 1908, and innovations were aimed towards improvements in Victorian and Edwardian 3D photography, the biggest novelty craze between the invention of photography and the inception of motion pictures. Holograms are another type of light-field image, but Light’s innovations are not immediately aiming to innovate in mobile 3D photography.