MAUI, Hawaii Component and handset makers are gearing up to ship mass volumes of camera phones worldwide in hopes of sparking new markets in mobile imaging. They say they can resolve looming design hurdles for 2-megapixel and higher-resolution images as well as real-time video.
What's less clear is whether they can make carriers and end users care about their vision and upcoming products.
Juha Putkiranta, senior vice president of the mobile multimedia and imaging group at Nokia Mobile Phones, cited analysts' predictions that the industry will ship 800 million camera phones by 2007 and that consumers will snap perhaps 100 billion digital images a year. "The numbers will be big," he promised in a keynote at the first Cameraphone Summit, sponsored here mainly by Nokia and Hewlett-Packard Co.
The big push from handset makers poses design challenges that could open fresh opportunities all along the electronics food chain, from component makers to software and service providers. There's a broad range of companies trying to build on the camera phone's foundation.
Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., for one, wants "to push quickly toward the 5-megapixel camera phone and push digital still cameras to become something only for professionals. That's our ideal," said Dong Hoon Jang, a principal engineer in the South Korean company's mobile-phone group. More than 60 percent of the cell phones that Samsung ships this year will have embedded cameras, estimated Muzibul Khan, a vice president for product management and engineering at Samsung's U.S. handset operation.
Adobe Systems Inc. is beginning to deliver capabilities in its applications to let designers build professional graphics for handsets based on the so-called Scalable Vector Graphics Tiny standard. "We want to enable ad agencies and other creative people to build high-quality mobile content," said senior product manager George Arriola.
IBM Corp.'s conference contingent showed its Infoscope software, a suite of unreleased products for combining imaging and GPS features on advanced cell phones to deliver innovative location, security and productivity services. A technology manager from Wells Fargo bank sketched out a number of ways camera phones could enhance work.
Mattel Inc. is about to launch a $25 camera phone for children. And Boeing Co. wants to put camera phones in airplane seat backs to let users create in-flight video networks.
The question lurking behind all this development work is whether users will care. A recent user survey by Infotrends Research Group Inc. found that 47 percent of North American homes with access to the Internet also have digital cameras. But 43 percent of Internet-linked households don't print photos, and 25 percent have never opened a photo on their PC. "That's pretty scary," said Kristy Holch, group director at Infotrends.
What's more, capital budgets at major wireless carriers may be too pinched to build out the infrastructure needed for camera phones anytime soon.
Today's networks can require 15 to 30 minutes to upload an image from the latest VGA-class cameras at a cost ranging from $6 to $60 or more for roaming users, Nokia's Putkiranta said. The nets may not be able to keep up with phone makers' road maps for shipping 2-Mpixel phones early next year and 3- to 4-Mpixel versions less than a year later.
"Software and compression alone can't solve the problem. You need a better upload infrastructure," Putkiranta said.
Richard Char, president of CMOS sensor maker IC Media Corp., said he had a recent discussion with the head of the consumer division of J-Phone Co. Ltd., the first carrier in Japan to widely roll out camera phones. "The dirty little secret is this has not substantially increased their network traffic," said Char. "Personally, I think OEMs have decided to introduce camera phones irrespective of what users want."
The only carrier at the camera phone conference, Japan's Docomo, provided inconclusive research on what the 60 percent of its 41 million subscribers now equipped with camera phones are doing with the devices. Eighty percent of Docomo's camera phone users take pictures with the device at least once a month, a third take pictures two or three times a month and 30 percent take pictures once or twice a week, said Carl Atsushi Hirano, an executive director for Docomo's i-mode service.
Hirano said that Docomo has not been able to link any increases in revenue or network traffic directly to camera phone use because the company looks at all its traffic as simply either e-mail or Web packets. Nevertheless, Docomo is plunging ahead into mobile video telephony, with 3 million video-ready handsets deployed and with plans for as many as 10 million to ship within a year.
While executives work to create a market for camera phones, engineers are grappling with tough design issues around packing 2-Mpixel-plus imaging and real-time video into handsets.
Today's VGA-class camera phones produce focused images in a narrow distance range and only under optimal light conditions. Component makers are addressing the problems at each stage of the image-processing chain. The mechanical and power issues in packing flash modules and better lenses into camera phones are proving the biggest challenges.
"Everything that's under Moore's Law will happen in time, but everything that's not is more difficult," said Nokia's Putkiranta.
As they grow in capabilities, the phones need to stay within current, 140-cc volume limits and to withstand being dropped as many as 10 times from 150 cm, he said. Nevertheless, Nokia and Samsung both expressed confidence that LED and flash modules and optical focus mechanisms will find their way into camera phones starting with the 2-Mpixel generation next year.
"The limiting factor is the lens and optics," said Gary Baum, senior vice president of marketing at NuCore Technology Inc., a startup that produces high-end image processors for digital still cameras. "Just as megahertz alone doesn't produce better computers, megapixels don't produce better images; you need low signal-to-noise ratios, good color balancing and superior image processing."
Lens makers face several challenges. They must produce ever-better images while shrinking their devices or at least holding the device size steady. That leads to shrinking pixel sizes and, thus, to less light per pixel.
Current VGA camera modules measure about 10 x 10 x 7.5 mm and use 4.9-micron pixels. Megapixel modules are moving to 9 x 9 x 6.5 mm with 3.2-micron pixels, said Char of IC Media.
Next-generation modules are expected to shrink sensors to 2.8 microns.
To compensate for less light per pixel, some module makers are fabricating thin-film-based microlenses on top of each pixel in a CMOS sensor. The microlenses help draw light onto each photodetector, according to Char.
At 1 Mpixel and beyond, some lens makers are moving from using three plastic elements to employing a hybrid of plastic and glass elements, raising costs. Philips Electronics and at least one startup are said to be working on liquid-based lenses for the 3- to 5-Mpixel generation.
Next-generation lenses are also incorporating better autofocus, digital zoom and higher-resolution video capabilities. The enhancements already have doubled the bill of materials for a CMOS sensor module, from $5.50 at the VGA level to $10.10 for a megapixel unit, because of more expensive lenses and manufacturing costs. Samsung hopes to produce a 2-Mpixel CMOS module with MPEG-4 video for less than $20 by year's end.
All the changes are creating at least short-term disruptions in the already-complex camera module market, where manufacturers of lenses, sensors and image processors work with a host of specialty assembly companies to create modules. Only four companies Omnivision, Hynix, IC Media and Micron are supplying megapixel modules using CMOS sensors today, down from the 15 to 20 that supplied less-complex VGA modules, Char said.
"Camera handsets are in short supply because there is a worldwide shortage of lenses," he said. "When we went from VGA to 1 Mpixel, it was like a great train wreck," with a substantial dropoff of competitors in lenses, modules and CMOS sensors.
The shortages should end this year, as lens makers and CMOS sensor vendors ramp their products. Mitsubishi, Sanyo and Sharp already offer 2-Mpixel sensors based on charge-coupled devices, but camera phone makers favor lower-cost modules based on CMOS sensors.
At the silicon level, sensor makers say they have to give up trying to process RGB signals for color balance and other features starting with the 2-Mpixel generation. Today's VGA CMOS sensors handle front-end processing of the RGB signal and then hand it off to a DSP or baseband processor. But at the 2-Mpixel level, CMOS sensors will hand off the RGB signal to a media processor or DSP for front-end processing and YUV signal output.
"At Epson, we are working on 5-Mpixel graphics engines for 2005," said George Lyons, a director of product management at Epson Research and Development's Vancouver Design Center in British Columbia.
Thanks to its Japan connections and its experience in embedded and low-power graphics, Epson has commanded significant design wins in early camera phones that it hopes it can leverage into the growing opportunity.
"We believe that when the 2- to 5-Mpixel camera phones become mainstream, they will replace a huge percentage of digital still cameras," Lyons said. "In 2005 to 2006, we're looking at 2-Mpixel phones going mainstream."
Lights, camera, video
As if the imaging issues were not enough, the megapixel cameras also hope to pack better video capabilities. They will take, send and even edit video clips with higher resolutions and frame rates than today's camera phones; enable real-time videoconferencing; and handle broadcast television.
"This will not be a still-picture world. It's a video world," said Khan of Samsung. His company's handsets will shift from seven to 15 frames/second at Common Intermediate Format (CIF) resolutions this year. Those next-generation phones will support video instant messaging, for which Khan has high hopes.
Both Nokia and Samsung said they are working on simple video-editing mechanisms so users easily can select out key moments of video they want to save and send without needing to download the clips to a PC and deal with more complex video-editing applications.
Chip makers are debating whether the camera phones can stay at quarter-CIF resolutions for a time. Some note playback will generally be on NTSC/PAL TVs, where QCIF is adequate. Others say the transition to standard and high-definition digital television over the next few years will force a move toward D1 resolution.
Broadcast TV and video telephony form the next frontier for camera phones. Today's models can access streaming video from the Internet. Nokia currently is conducting a field trial in Berlin for receiving terrestrial broadcast TV on cell phones. A separate trial, in the United States, is testing video reception over 2.5G cellular nets using the Edge standard.
Whichever TV tuner eventually goes into phones, it will be digital, not analog, Nokia's Putkiranta said. And ultimately the transport network has to be based on Internet Protocol.
"We will support videoconferencing over circuit-switched and IP networks, but our long-term strategy is video-over-IP," he said. "And carriers agree, because they see the efficiency benefits."