Date: Tue, 21 May 2013 03:04:17 +0200
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Nokia Growth Partners invests in array camera technology firm
Bloomberg reports that Nokia Growth Partners, the venture capital and investment arm, has made an investment in Pelican Imaging, a company which is developing array camera technology solutions for smartphones. This technology, which recently came to wider public attention through the Lytro camera, uses a microlens array to create a light-field camera, also called a 'plenoptic' camera, that can capture 4D light field information about a scene.
This light field information effectively records extra data about the light hitting the camera and allows for additional processing techniques to be applied. For example, depth information can be obtained for every pixel, allowing the focus of an image to be changed after it has been captured (i.e. refocus a photo after capture). It also allows for multiple focus points, scaling and segmenting of images, easier and more sophisticated post-capture manipulation (change backgrounds, apply filters), glare reduction, 3D model creation, and more.
Pelican Imaging's computational array camera system, which has been in development for 5 years, was first discussed in a 2009 press release. In 2011, the company announced it had developed the first prototype, which used an array of 25 lenses. The technology has been refined further and reduced in size, such that the current version is 50% thinner than existing mobile cameras. This characteristic of the camera makes it particularly well suited to smartphones, where the camera module is frequently one of the key determinants in the thickness of a device.
Nokia has a long history of imaging innovation, most recently apparent in its Pureview devices, the 'Nokia 808 Pureview' and 'Nokia Lumia 920', and the investment in Pelican Imaging should be seen as the latest step in a deliberate strategy to focus on imaging as one of Nokia's key innovation pillars, which the company believes will help it differentiate its devices from its competitors.
Nokia has its own in-house imaging experts and has made a number of imaging related acquisitions, most recently picking up Scalado last year, but it also has a long history of external partnerships and investments. The most high profile partnership has been with lens designer Carl Zeiss, but nearly all of Nokia's major imaging innovations have been created as a result of joint projects between Nokia and its suppliers (e.g. EDoF camera modules, Carl Zeiss Optics, N95 sensor, N8 sensor, PureView 808 sensor, HAAC microphones).
While it is still relatively early days for light-field cameras it is clear they do hold considerable promise and Pelican Imaging looks set to be a pioneer. In the Bloomberg article, Nokia Growth Partners' Bo Ilsoe is quoted as saying that array cameras are "on the cusp of being commercialized and Pelican does software for that", before going on to add that "it’s very complicated to do this algorithmically and Pelican is one of the companies that has mastered this technology".
Array camera in a Lumia smartphone?
Nokia Growth Partner's investment does not necessarily mean the imminent arrival of a Nokia device with such camera technology included, but does provide a strong hint about the future directions in which Nokia is thinking. In the past, Nokia Growth Partners has invested in other imaging related technology companies, such as Heptagon, which have later gone on to become suppliers for Nokia. While Nokia Growth Partners is run with the goal of achieving positive returns on investments, a strong secondary aim is the support the creation of products and technologies that may have applications in future mobile devices or products (i.e. helping seed new mobile innovations).
The challenges facing array camera in smartphones are around the processing power requirements for a high number of pixels, the development of the necessary processing algorithms, and the production of any hardware, most notably the optics, in high volumes.
Array cameras require additional processing power because many more pixels are involved than in a single-lens camera and because additional software processing is required. Devices such as Nokia's 808 Pureview, although taking a different approach, do show that it is possible to deal with one billion+ pixels per second with current smartphone processor technology. The challenge around processing software is the key area in which Pelican Imaging has been placing most of its efforts, such that most of the broad scale technical challenges have been solved. The production of hardware in high volumes may be more difficult, but it is notable that this is an area with which Nokia has a great deal of experience, having partnered with multiple companies in the development and production of new mass market hardware components.