The future in sight
While thousands of visitors take photos in Edinburgh Zoo with their new-fangled camera phones, little do they know that just 200 metres away is a building where 13 per cent of the imaging systems bought worldwide last year were designed and developed – some of them as small as the head of a matchstick…
People laughed when Graham Townsend presented the ST Imaging Division’s ‘vision for the future’ in 2000 and predicted the spectacular worldwide success of the camera phone. At a gathering of international technology journalists, he explained that the unique advantages of CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductors) imaging technology, coupled with parallel improvements in telecoms, would “trigger an explosive growth in the availability and adoption of image-enhanced communication products.”
But after sales of 80 million camera modules in 2006, no-one laughs now when ST’s Director of Future Technology says that soon every home in the developed world will have around ten embedded imager systems, and that everyone will carry a camera wherever they go, capable of reading barcodes, recognising faces, providing evidence – and taking great photos.
The latest prototypes developed by the Edinburgh-based team of ST Microelectronics Imaging Division are the same size as the head of a matchstick, and the aim is to make these for less than $5 per unit. “We make things possible which used to seem impossible,” says Townsend, who is also deputy general manager of the Edinburgh office. “Some of our products are solutions in search of a problem.”
ST’s biggest problem, however, is not finding new applications for the next generation of CMOS-based imaging systems – it’s working out which ones to focus on first. “If you ask ten people, including electronics engineers, to come up with a new application, you’ll get ten different answers, and many of them will have a lot of promise,” says Townsend. “We haven’t got the bandwidth to cope with it all, and probably deal with less than ten per cent of the potential applications.”
Cars, for example, will not only have miniature cameras on board to help with reversing but ‘black box’ cameras for filming traffic incidents (in case of an insurance claim or lawsuit) and even cameras to control the inflation of airbags. People will be able to use a multi-functional device incorporating an imaging system to scan a barcode on a product, then ‘click-thru’ on their mobile browser to do more research on the Internet – e.g. compare prices. The fridge will know you need to buy milk before you do, thanks to the intelligent camera scanning the shelves (even when the door’s shut). Security will also be enhanced by new imaging systems, as cameras become all-pervasive and interconnected, as well as much smarter.
“There will be thousands of new imaging applications in the near future,” says Townsend, “enabled by the ever-increasing capabilities of the new generation of CMOS imaging systems and the ever-decreasing cost of production.”
The future may be full of potential and the market today worth a few billion dollars already, but a few years ago, very few people thought CMOS would conquer the imaging world – then dominated by CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras produced in Japan and Korea.
When Townsend joined Vision, the imaging company which had grown out of the University of Edinburgh during the 1990s and was later bought out by ST, CMOS-based systems seemed destined for lower-end products, not sophisticated products like digital SLR cameras, and far too expensive to be built into phones.
Since then, the industry has changed out of all recognition. Camera phones now account for 70 per cent of the worldwide imaging market, and imaging systems are built into 60 per cent of all new models sold – and CMOS has begun to change the balance of power in the imaging market, sweeping aside CCD.
In the 1990s, CMOS imaging systems were primarily used in security cameras, producing only black and white pictures. And then there was Barbie…
According to Townsend, when Vision first approached Mattel (Barbie’s creator) in 1995, the toy giant firmly rejected the idea of associating Barbie with a CMOS-based digital camera, even if it could be sold for less than $50. Young girls would not want to plug cameras into computers, said the marketing people, but when Townsend showed them a short animation produced by his 11-year-old daughter, using a prototype camera, they quickly changed their mind, and the Barbie camera soon became an international best-seller.
The latest imaging systems are light years ahead of the earliest models, and are quickly becoming commodities rather than technical gadgets. ST, for example, supplies its solutions to several industry leaders, including auto-focus modules which measure only 1cm x 1cm x 1cm and will soon be able to deliver up to five megapixels (Mp) i.e. 5000 000 pixels. The 3Mp versions currently ramping into volume production are already becoming old-fashioned, as consumers begin to take camera phones for granted.
The secret of ST’s success in the imaging market is that it “masters the four pillars of imaging,” says Townsend, including signal processing, optics, mechanics and the sensor itself. This enables ST to keep a foot in both camps of the imaging market – making imaging modules as well as its own image sensors. This ‘integrated’ approach is reflected in the design of the product itself – a ‘system on a chip’ which integrates the lens with the intelligence that makes it all work, reducing signal noise as well as the production cost. Automated, high-volume assembly also helps produce quality products at affordable prices.
ST’s camera-phone products are also a good example of “technology push,” says Townsend. In other words, consumers don’t demand it – and don’t know they ‘need’ it until it arrives in the shops. Soon, cameras will be built into all mobile phones, and will spread into more and more aspects of everyday life. “We are literally changing the way people record their lives,” adds Townsend.
The pace of change so far has been spectacular. At the end of the 1990s, CMOS imaging systems delivered black-and-white pictures with 100,000 pixels – and retailed for $20-25. Today, for the same price, the auto-focus systems not only deliver 5Mp-quality pictures at 12 bits per pixel, in colour, at a rate of eighty million pixels per second, but then execute a further 300-500 operations per pixel to improve the final image further still. Even the pixels deliver more detail – reduced from 12 to less than two microns in size. And for less than $5, ST has matchhead-size cameras (4.5 by 4.5 by 3.6mm) – more advanced than any CMOS system available only a few years ago.
“The trick is in getting the algorithms to complement the sensor,” Townsend explains, “but more than anything, I think it is the synergy of having a large and varied engineering community working together in one single site that makes all the difference, and the prospect of working as part of a team which attracts the best people to work here. After all, ultimately, it’s the staff working here and in our other sites round the world that have made the success story possible.”