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Experts chime in on future of camera phones

Posted: 11 Feb 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mobile camera phone? solid-state image sensor? docomo communications? st microelectronics? samsung?

While mobile phone cameras represent the largest and fastest growing market for solid-state image sensors, the continued success of mobile camera phones may not be assured.

Experts at the International Solid State Circuits Conference here debated whether a "killer application" is needed to boost demand for camera phones long after the novelty of taking pictures with the cellphone has worn off.

"Every year we have a new higher projection for the camera phones market," said panel moderator Jed Hurwitz of STMicroelectronics. "In 2004, mobile phone vendors introduced the first handsets with image sensors that had 3.2 million pixels. And Samsung promises 10 million pixels by the end of the year. But will consumers care?"

Since the late 1960s, phone companies have tried repeatedly to develop landline-based picture phones to consumers without success. In the late 1990s the first mobile phones with cameras were introduced in Japan. After their introduction, sales of mobile phone cameras grew quickly. By 2003, almost 70 million mobile phone cameras were sold. An estimated 150 million more were sold in 2004. Asia remains the fastest growing region for camera phones.

Minoru Etoh of service provider DoCoMo Communications argued that the Internet could be the next big cellphone application. "E-mail and Web browsing took off, although they were not really innovative," Etoh said. DoCoMo has close to 43 million subscribers and attributes its success to a combination of traffic and a linkage to "brick and mortar" businesses. "Subscribers share their thoughts using their cellphone cameras with their friends and create a buzz for buying products."

Citing what he called "communication ubiquity" and "imaging by the general population" could result in the next big set of mobile phone applications, said Etoh.

"Video telephony is known to be a killer application for 3G," added Jinsung Choi of LG Electronics. "However, it turns out that other relatively simple multimedia applications such as MMS [Multimedia Messaging Service] are more popular in reality. The way end users accept new applications are different from what we think," said Choi.

The debate also centers on whether demand for mobile imaging results from a technology "push" by its creators or an end-user "pull."

"We have to ask ourselves what the value proposition [is for] camera phones," said Jason Hartlove of Agilent Technologies. "Portability, spontaneity and ease of use are enriching the lives of end users to a degree never before achieved in photography," he added.

To meet market demand, image sensor formats and camera functions have increased while pixel size has decreased. In 2002 almost all mobile phone cameras outside of Japan contained a CIF format image sensor with a pixel size greater than 5.0um x 5.0um, a fixed-focus lens and uncompressed digital output data. High-end mobile phone cameras also had a pixel size around 3.0 x 3.0 microns, an auto-focus lens, flash illumination and JPEG compressed output data.

As phone cameras evolved from novelties to digital cameras, the question remains whether consumers really want mobile phone cameras or are they merely a feature pushed on consumers by the service providers?

Stephen Noble, an executive with eastman kodak said mobile imaging represents a paradigm shift in the imaging industry. "We have witnessed tremendous growth in the placement of camera equipped mobile phones around the world, and the trend shows no signs of abating."

The appeal of phone cameras is users' desire for spontaneous photography, according to Noble. "Most people today always carry their mobile phone, but most do not carry a digital camera. The opportunity to communicate easily with pictures and to 'capture the moment' makes phone cams very desirable."

Image quality is also improving, said Noble.

Consumers are accustomed to carrying mobile phones, fueling the used of phone cameras. "The human desire to be able to store memories and share means the camera phone is set to be the preferred consumer imaging solution," said Nokia's Janne Haavisto. Haavisto said the mobile phone is the world's most successful and popular portable platform, containing a high-quality display, plenty of memory, good processing power, long-life battery and most importantly, seamless connectivity to other mobile users and to the Internet, said Haavisto. "The core technologies of pixel, lens and packaging are being developed at an extraordinary rate to match both the performance and the supply expectations of a mature digital imaging market."

Panelists agreed that CMOS imagers are more desirable from a cost perspective but CCD imagers still have the upper hand in terms of performance. "CCD will continue to provide high quality imaging in cellphone cameras for the near future," said Sony's Tadakuni Narabu.

The experts also agreed that flash technology and dynamic range in camera phones need improvement, but do not pose obstacles to their growing popularity.

- Nicolas Mokhoff

EE Times

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