Edible cameras. Focus that changes after you shoot. What's really in store for photo technology?
Small Is Big
Olympus’ EndoCapsule camera is so tiny you could swallow it whole. In fact, you’re supposed to. Says John Knaur, senior digital products manager at Olympus, “As you swallow it, it takes pictures all the way through your gastrointestinal tract and relays that data to a sensor outside the body that the doctor can download to see what you look like on the inside—without running scopes through you.”
This is a cool invention for gastroenterologists, but what does it mean to photographers? Just that our ability to get decent—though not necessarily print-worthy—pictures from a ridiculously tiny camera may be around the corner.
At least, that’s the claim. And resolution is less important, since the images such micro-cameras capture are meant to be seen only on screens, not in print.
Take the Altera FPGA processing chips used by sensor makers AltaSens and Aptina, whose products are used in video security cameras. These increase the image’s dynamic range by using tone-mapping on two simultaneous exposures. The result is HD video with better detail in both highlights and shadows.
“The AltaSens sensor can take two exposures in one frame time. Half the pixels are set for one exposure time while the other half are set for a different exposure time,” says Altera senior strategic marketing manager Judd Heap. “The Aptina sensor is similar, except it captures video at 720p resolution instead of 1080p.”
As the cost of such processors comes down, over the next few years they could begin to be used in consumer cameras.
At the same time, camera makers are banking on smaller ILCs that offer greater flexibility and performance than true compacts or electronic-viewfinder (EVF) superzooms without the bulk of DSLRs.
The Micro Four Thirds system from Olympus and Panasonic, along with APS-C-sensor ILCs from Samsung and Sony, are gaining in popularity, and chances are good that the other camera makers will enter this market before long.
Market analytics firm IDC forecasts that ILCs could reach 7% of cameras sold in 2013, up from 1% today, while DSLRs will drop to 6% from 8%. IDC analyst Chris Chute believes, though, that DSLRs will continue to dominate the high end of the camera market.
Sony recently announced a new kind of hybrid camera that seems to fall somewhere between an ILC and DSLR. It uses what Sony calls “Translucent Mirror Technology,” a fixed mirror that reflects light to the AF sensor and transmits light through to the APS-C-sized CMOS image sensor, simultaneously.
Among the beneficiaries of miniaturization are the makers—and users—of camera phones. For instance, Sony Ericsson’s latest smartphones emphasize their credentials as cameras. The Xperia X10 is an Android device with a 4-inch screen and 8.1MP camera that shoots stills and widescreen video. It has touch-focus and AF, flash and movie lights, macro mode, and a microSD card slot for up to 16GB of storage. The Satio boasts a 12.1MP camera with similar features, but it runs on the Symbian OS and has a front-facing camera for two-way video calls.
And last spring, Nokia exec Anssi Vanjoki created a stir by saying that “in the very near future” cellphone cameras would make DSLRs obsolete. That served as background for Nokia’s launch of its 12MP camera phone, the N8, which has a Carl Zeiss lens, high-res 3.5-inch touchscreen, and shoots 720p HD video.
That’s a lot of pixels to cram onto a tiny cellphone sensor, so you can expect noisy images. And that kind of tiny lens doesn’t approach the edge-to-edge sharpness, distortion control, and speed of today’s lenses for interchangeable-lens cameras, whether DSLRs or ILCs.
That’s the front on which convergence has gotten truly interesting. Adding HD video shooting to DSLRs has enabled filmmakers to get a much higher level of image quality at a significantly lower cost than shooting with traditional motion-picture cameras. And it has allowed still photographers—notably photojournalists and event shooters—to move into video more easily.
What’s next? Interchangeable lenses on consumer-level camcorders are coming very soon from Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony.
And at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai this summer, Canon revealed a concept product, the Wonder Camera. It would capture extremely high–res video—every frame a usable photo. But it’s more concept than product, and not a mere two or three years away.