How mobile cameras are heading for optimal zoom


10 Aug 2008

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The biggest problem with today’s mobile handset is the limitations of the onboard camera. There is only so much picture quality you can achieve before you require a mechanical zoom, which of course would make the handset too bulky and too expensive.

Digital zoom is a cheaper alternative but because it essentially involves software ‘guestimating’ the zoom, there is a loss of quality. Tessera Technologies believes it has found the solution to this problem with OptiML – the industry’s first non-mechanical optical zoom technology.

OptiML Zoom gets rid of all these issues by combining cutting edge optics and computing to produce a lens that is small and cheap, yet offers a better zoom than the current mobile phone camera.

“Mobile cameras are a nice idea because you always have them with you but the thing about them is that the picture quality can look almost as grainy as the Apollo 15 mission! I don’t think anyone would entrust their life’s memories to a cell phone camera,” said Liam Goudge, executive vice-president and general manager of the smart imaging division at Tessera Technologies.

“The fact that you have a phone with you all the time is a very powerful thing. Take, for example, the London Tube bombing – people on the scene were able to take pictures so they have a security application also.”

The challenge, said Goudge, is vastly improving the quality of cameras in today’s phone so that it could be possible to use these pictures as part of your family album.

While mobile phone cameras aren’t quite good enough for this yet, there is a rising standard of ‘good enough’, as we have moved on from the supermarket disposable camera, and currently there are technologies in the pipeline which will keep improving this experience.

“The unique challenge posed by the mobile phone camera is that everything must be really, really small and really cheap. You can’t go charging say US$200 for the camera part of the mobile handset. There is definitely a unique set of challenges.”

Tessera rose to this challenge through a background of semiconductors production that made it ideal to develop silicon chips and put them in very small packages.

After acquiring several companies, including FotoNation, the firm that developed the on-board red-eye reduction used in most handsets worldwide. Tessera was able to combine this with a new technology – wafer-level optics – making thousands of lenses all at the same time.

“We have been focusing on making an entire camera for between US$1 and US$2. Sure, it’s not your Nikon professional but it is a very cheap and small 3mm camera with a lot of applications, including in the medical field.”

By Marie Boran

Pictured: Cheap as chips – tiny, cost-effective, wafer-level cameras from Tessera