Is the Mobile Phone Camera market innovative enough?

October 1, 2014

Mobile camera innovation

Personally I have to say that I am happy to see mobile photography evolving as it is. I think that the most significant changes made to phone cameras (different from one model to the other) are the use of larger sensors, on-chip phase-detection to improve AF tracking speed, optical image stabilization, etc.

As technology innovation continues to improve, it’s very interesting to see where we will be a year or two years from now; where technology is going to take mobile photography to.

Most of the current technologies are obviously inherited from conventional digital cameras, like the OIS and phase-detection sensors. That said, mobile phones are significantly slimmer than the average digital camera, and therefore it can’t inherit all of its features an advance as so.

This is one reason why many phone manufacturers don’t use an optical zoom lens on their phones, because it makes the phone much thicker (depends on the sensor size, lens focal length, aperture and lens optical construction, etc.). Some companies like Samsung have decided to pack an optical zoom lens on their smartphones, like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom which has a 10x optical zoom lens. This lens obviously lead to very prominent protrusion at the back of the camera. Some people are ok with that, others don’t.

A year ago when Apple launched the iPhone 5S, I was already thinking to myself what the iPhone 6 would be like. I got it quite right guess that it would improve the AF performance and add optical image stabilization.

That being said, I was quite upset that I was able to guess what Apple will come up with, I was expecting Apple to surprise and come with an innovative camera that will put the competitors in shock, as well as myself. This didn’t happen in retrospect.

If you look at the progress of digital camera and DSLRs, you can see that nothing truly innovative has merged for quite some time. Sensor performance has been improved, BSI sensors now used in many compact cameras, the electronic viewfinders are now much better, on-sensor phase-detection is used widely on mirrorless and DSLRs to improve AF performance in Live View and video recording — but not any game changing innovation in the past five years or so.

Maybe it’s not worth investing in new technologies for the entry-level and mid-range market, maybe improving a bit on what there already is satisfy the demands of the targeted market. While the point-and-shoot as reach it’s shelf life, mobile photography continue to advanced and evolve very rapidly and the market share is certainly much larger.

This why I was thinking that Apple and other leading phone manufacturers should spend more on hardware innovation, not just on the software side which is much cheaper to produce.

I first saw that quite evident when Samsung released the Samsung Galaxy S4. It blew everyone away with all the long list of built-in camera apps and features. That said, it seems that it was some kind of a cover up for true innovation on the hardware part. I mean, let’s look at it this way. I assume that most people will be happy to finally have an optical zoom on the camera, but in a form that the lens is smaller and less protruded at the back. There are already technologies like flexible silicon lenses that by bending the lens it produce and optical magnification. Whatever the feature is, there are always things that can be improved.

For example, why not using a lens like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, even at the same size, but make the lens sit on an empty area at the top of the phone, so it can completely be retracted inside the phone and the phone will retain it’s slim size. Only when you used the camera, the lens will extend.

I am just throwing things up, but I am not an engineer, just a tech enthusiast that expect from leading companies to understand consumer needs and innovate accordingly. If an optical zoom can be so useful for many, why not bringing it to us in a usable form. I don’t want to think that the camera technology innovation is closed to maximize it’s potential, because we are still far from it. I can see that some companies try to innovate, like Sony with the QX10 attachable lens-style lens for example, but obviously that is a nice innovation, but not the right innovation that I expect for the mobile market, where things has to be.. well.. “mobile” and portable.

I actually admire Sony and its progress with its Xperia Z smartphones, especially the new Xperia Z3 and its relatively large 1/2.3” (6.17×4.55mm) sensor, the user of its professional grade optics, the Sony G lens, 4K video recording and making the phone waterproof so it can even be used like an underwater camera (up to 1.5 meters of fresh water for 30 minutes).

I also appreciate companies focusing on improving image quality, burst speed, AF performance and high ISO performance — all are very welcomed improvements — but still something is missing.

You can just wonder what if we can enjoy a 3x-5x optical zoom lens with fast aperture (~f/1.8 to f/2.2), 1/2.3” BSI sensor, Hybrid AF, 4K video recording, 10 burst without any limited burst limitation (until the card is full), water-resistant design, an extended zoom like the PureView sensor design, 3D stereoscopic recording (Stills and videos), the ability to attach an external mic (one that can be attached with a clip to the phone (doesn’t have to be large).. and so on — all that in one device.. Right now, each company seems to focus and improve on two to three features. I know that there are limitations that makes it hard or even very expensive to do.

If one company could come with such innovative camera design, even only on its flagship camera, it will certainly move all the mobile camera industry forward. I expected Apple to dictate the pace of progress of the mobile market, but it’s now behind the competition in many aspects. Image quality wise it’s now the leader with its new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, as good as it is, it’s not such a very high marginal performance that the average user can really take advantage off. The high ISO performance is about the same, image details are improved — but again, this is not innovation, but improving and recycling of what’s already there.

Sometimes the innovation comes from 3rd parties, other players that are not market leaders, at least no like Samsung and Apple. Look at Oppo Electronics Corp., a chinese company which is known for its innovative Oppo N1 device with a rotation camera. Even the phone slogan says “Return to innovation”. What Oppo did was to use one camera for the rear and back. It used a rotating part on which the camera resides on, so you can rotate (206°) it forward to take selfies and backwards for general shots. You enjoy the same high image quality of a main camera, and don’t need to make compromised on image quality. That said, some companies prefer the two-cameras method because they can use a wide field of view for the front lens, which is better for slefies and video chatting.

LG is also another company that focus on technology innovation in the camera field. Although the laser AF system was not originally developed by LG, it’s implemented the right way and significantly improved the AF performance without using on-sensor focus pixels. So the innovation is not gone of course, we can see companies trying to push mobile photography forward, as this is a section where people can easily relate to and it’s easier to convince them to buy their device for its great camera capabilities. Nokia has done it with its PureView camera, although on Windows Phone, but people didn’t care because the image quality was excellent and it utilized advanced technologies that improved the user experience with the camera.

So maybe the market has reached a point that the emphasis is on just making smartphones more powerful and focus on in-house software. I personally hope that in the near future we’ll see a company that is dare to spend money on true innovation and reveal a mobile phone camera that surpasses every other camera on a phone on the market. Let’s start with an optical zoom and move from there on :)

I currently own the iPhone 5S and I love shooting with it. I don’t see any reason to upgrade to a better device as for now, hopefully one company will convince me otherwise. Maybe my expectations are too high, but I want to believe they are not.

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