What will Apple’s acquisition of Spectral Edge mean for the iPhone?

16 Dec 2019

Image: © wachiwit/Stock.adobe.com

Apple has acquired a Cambridge-based photography tech start-up, which could give a boost to iPhone cameras.

On Friday (13 December), it emerged that Apple has bought a photography technology start-up called Spectral Edge. Based in the Cambridge Science Park, Spectral Edge is a company that combines patented image fusion tech with deep learning to reveal more of the colour, detail and clarity in an image.

The company’s technology fuses together multiple versions of the same image, including versions taken on the invisible infrared spectrum, combining them to improve photo quality.

What was Spectral Edge doing before the acquisition?

Founded by Robert Swann, the business was spun out of a University of East Anglia research lab in 2014, according to the Financial Times.

Spectral Edge raised $8.1m before the acquisition rumours began, according to Crunchbase, with previous investors including IQ Capital and Parkwalk Advisors.

Before Apple confirmed the acquisition, Swann’s start-up had been looking at the potential role that its AI and machine learning photo technology could play in the security industry.

The FT reported that in a March paper, Spectral Edge wrote: “[It] provides surveillance cameras with high resolution, colour accurate images, even in very low or mixed lighting conditions … It doesn’t add artificial colours but simply optimises the illumination that is present.”

Apple’s acquisition

Apple’s provided little comment on the deal, with a spokesperson saying: “Apple buys smaller companies from time to time, and we generally don’t discuss our purpose or plans.”

According to comments made by Apple boss Tim Cook earlier this year, the tech giant buys a company every two to three weeks on average. Apple often doesn’t announce these deals because the companies are small and Apple is “primarily looking for talent and intellectual property”, he added.

Some of the companies known to have been acquired by Apple this year include iKinema, Tueo Health and Drive.ai.

Since the acquisition of Spectral Edge was announced, the UK company has taken its website offline and deleted its social media profiles. According to Bloomberg, which first reported the story, regulatory filings showed that Apple corporate lawyer Peter Denwood has been listed as the director of Spectral Edge, while the company’s other board members and advisers were removed.

The race to build the best smartphone camera

As competition in the smartphone market intensifies, Apple has placed an increasing focus on the technology behind the iPhone’s camera in the last few years. The latest model, the iPhone 11 Pro, comes with a new three-lens camera, which marked the centrepiece of the phone’s announcement.

Google has also been working on its phone camera, adding a second lens to the Pixel 4, with both hardware and software that impressed critics when the device was released in October. This year, Google Pixel’s team said: “The special sauce that makes our Pixel camera unique is our computational photography.”

One of the standout features is Night Sight, a Google-developed machine learning tool that restores brightness and colour to dimly lit photos. From our review here, you can see how impressive this feature is.

Another feature made possible with computational photography is Google’s Super Res Zoom, which uses multiple exposures to improve photo quality.

‘It’s just simple physics’

When Apple’s marketing chief Phil Schiller discussed the new iPhone neural engine process, which extracts additional detail from nine exposures, he called computational photography “mad science”. Google researcher and Stanford professor, Marc Levoy, later joked: “This isn’t ‘mad science’ – it’s just simple physics.”

All jokes aside, if Apple can use the acquisition of Spectral Edge to boost the iPhone camera with new tech or industry expertise, it may provide strong competition for Google and the Pixel.

However, nothing substantial about the deal between Spectral Edge and Apple has been revealed, with the tech giant remaining typically tight-lipped about the financial terms and its intentions.

The Verge pointed out that Apple has been known to acquire companies just for the talent, adding that “there are probably a lot of other Spectral Edge-sized companies that have joined Apple that we’ve never heard of”.

What we can be sure of, however, is that Apple likely won’t be slowing down when it comes to smartphone camera development.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic