On Tuesday, July 30, 2013, approximately 3 years after it was first filed, the US Patent and Trademark Office got around to granting Apple a very interesting camera patent. From what we know of the patent it provides primarily a new and different means of enhancing color accuracy, although higher resolution is a benefit as well. Before we get into the details, let's briefly recap where the smartphone world currently stands on cameras.
First and foremost we now have Nokia's Lumia 1020, which finally delivers on the 41 megapixel camera technology first introduced in Nokia's Pureview 808 Symbian smartphone (which now dates back to February 2012). The Pureview technology -- combined with Nokia's industry leading low light and image stabilization capabilities and its Carl Zeiss lens -- is enormously interesting and with the right approach to using it will result in amazing high quality photographs that can be printed and hung. If you happen to be a snapshot taker who just posts photos on Facebook it won't work for you -- stick with the Lumia 920. But if you want a camera that delivers on print-image quality look no further. And BTW, there is a really solid smartphone to be had with it as well! We'll be writing more about the 1020 soon.
Next is the beautifully designed HTC One, which has taken a decidedly different camera approach. Instead of adding pixels, HTC decided to reduce the pixel count to 4 megapixels but is instead using a sensor that imbues enhanced qualities to each "enhanced" pixel. We won't go into the technology here, but suffice it to say that consumers looking for high-end images for posting will be extremely happy with the end results. For printable images however it won't trump the Lumia 1020.
Finally, we have what we like to refer to as the more generic next step to next generation smartphone cameras -- the move to 13 megapixel resolution CCDs. The prime example for this is the Samsung Galaxy S4 and for the general case this now looks to be the next standard bearer. More pixels are always better though the qualitative enhancements are likely to be minimal. Samsung loaded the S4 with a collection of photo gimmicks which may be useful to some but in the end, for us, they are proving to be more along the lines of worth playing with for a few hours and then best forgotten. Still, the S4 is a good snapshot device and if posting to Facebook is your game it will certainly suffice.
That brings us back to Apple, which is most assuredly not interested in following the crowd. There has not been a lot noted about the camera that is likely to appear with the next generation iPhone. Our own guess is that it will remain the same 8 megapixel version for most of the Apple lineup that is likely to be introduced later this year. What about the next iPhone that will become Apple's next flagship device? We lean toward the same 8 megapixel camera - our feeling here is that Apple will wait until next year to up the ante on the camera end of things. But…perhaps Apple need not wait to get something out the door that is not your father's typical smartphone camera.
U.S. Patent No. 8,497,897 for "Image capture using luminance and chrominance sensors"
Apple's new patent is for a camera system that is not predicated on more pixels, but rather on something more esoteric (by which we mean esoteric for the general consumer). The new patent defines a system that uses three separate sensors - one for luminance (brightness) and two for chrominance (color) - that work together to generate images with enhanced color accuracy and with some level of higher resolution.
No other smartphone camera we are aware of does any such thing.
And relative to Apple being able to put the "innovation" word to use, the patent would certainly allow Apple to claim it and use it. If for no other reason this patent could be quite useful to Apple as both a differentiator and as a marketing tool. A lot of marketing can be generated around it and even if, ultimately, the end results for image quality are no better than what any of the other flagships products noted above can deliver, it will make no difference simply because the approach is, well … different and unique to Apple. Further, it strikes us that this method is not one that is even remotely likely to have been previously thought of (and if Samsung suddenly pulls off such a miracle, we'll see a whole new wave of thermonuclear patent wars).
The method defined in the patent -- which was first filed in 2010 (we assume Apple may have spent some time since then refining the approach and has it ready to roll) and credits David S. Gere as the inventor -- makes use of three separate images created by each sensor to generate one "best" image. What is further interesting to us here is that each sensor works with its own lens system -- hence the three lens description. Each sensor is served by what the patent refers to as its own lens train, which directs light to each respective sensor's surface. The image below from the patent application itself shows the sensors and the lenses in action. Note that the luminance sensor is the one in the middle, with the chrominance sensors flanking it.
The image above shows the basic layout for how the sensors and lenses align with each other. Note that they go through an image processor to build the ultimate composite image. We won't go through all the details here but note that the use of two chrominance sensors provides some interesting possibilities. First, there can be some sort of stereoscopic capability (think 3D) created.
Next, what the system essentially does is take two images through the chrominance filters from slightly different perspectives - which means that, assuming the sensors are properly placed relative to each other, the chances of having those "dead spots" we sometimes need to go into our photo editing apps to remove are significantly reduced, as the image from at least one of the sensors is likely to not have the spot since it was created from a slightly different perspective and offset.
The image processor is critical to the entire holistic device as it is ultimately responsible for creating the final composite image. The processor is of course programmable, so perhaps users will have camera options to emphasize certain things (say, for example, best color accuracy over brightness, or vice versa). Image algorithms will no doubt be developed as part of the overall system (assuming Apple ever actually ships it) that will be able to interpolate data from all three sensors and enhance the quality of images in many ways that will not rely simply on enhanced pixel counts. In a sense the image processor will be processing a substantial amount of data to create the final composite image - think of it as a big data project on a small scale.
Finally, we will note that although the patent refers to a three lens, three sensor system, more sophisticated versions of the technology could be built over time utilizing more lenses and sensors. We'll also note that building such a system will require custom IC development - this certainly isn't an off the shelf camera we're talking about.
It is a perfect system for Apple to include in a true flagship iPhone. It delivers a real differentiator, it is protected by a patent, and it offers a lot of marketing potential. The power of suggestion meanwhile will certainly convince many, many consumers that the images are superior to the competition. Bring it on!
A tip of the hat goes to Apple Insider, which first reported the patent award. The patent itself, No. 8,497,897, provides full method details. Be prepared for a lot of stilted patent language descriptions if you decide to read it.
TechZone360 Senior Editor
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