Wireless Systems Design

See The World Through Cell-Phone Cameras

The availability of low-cost, low-power CMOS imaging modules helped to fuel a mania for camera-enabled cell phones in Japan. That mania proved to be contagious for the rest of the world. Of course, the Japanese may credit teenage girls for starting this craze. But now, even business people avidly archive photos of colleagues and whatever else passes in front of their phones. Consumers that need a new cell phone in Japan are hard-pressed to find one that doesn't include a camera.

Americans, on the other hand, face a plethora of cellular choices. These options bewilder them as much as they entice them. For example, advertisements show fancy new camera phones that all have VGA resolution (640 x 480 pixels). Yet only one phone is labeled "VGA." It's a safe bet that this phone is the most expensive model. Seeing such confusing advertisements is sure to make the typical consumer go astray—even if he or she knows what VGA means.

Much of this confusion stems from the fact that no benchmarks exist for objectively comparing picture quality in image sensors, camera modules, or end products. As a result, consumers cannot rely on advertisements to tell them much. Instead, they must go to the phone store for show and tell. Of course, they cannot expect the salespeople to have all of the answers either. Salespeople can dazzle consumers with details about the available service plans. But most of them aren't educated enough to provide all that much detail about phone functionality and performance.

Service providers in the United States could be leveraging camera phones to lock half of the American population into new two-year service contracts. Why has it taken so long for them to step up to this opportunity? Some observers have blamed the picture quality of cell-phone cameras.

Granted, it's true that VGA isn't high resolution. But go take a look yourself. Some of the VGA handsets offer fairly good image quality. When you consider that the resolution comes from an imaging module that measures only 6 mm2, it's actually pretty amazing quality. That square includes an imaging chip, a digital signal processor (DSP) that supports the VGA format, and a double lens that's packaged in a light-tight module. Finding room for this module is easy. Plus, power consumption is low because the imaging chip is CMOS.

Some cell phones have incorporated conventional CCD imaging units, which are still used in most digital cameras today. These devices require high voltage and a hefty battery. As a result, CMOS has taken over in VGA-resolution applications. It provides increasingly good image quality.

You can see that image quality without even going to the cell-phone store. Instead, check out some moblogging (mobile weblogs with photos) sites. Two that you might want to try are textamerica.com or fotolog.net. The subjects of moblog photos range from stupid pet tricks to helicopters in Iraq. Today, cell-phone cameras are covering the world. They're pushing out the borders of how people relate to the world and—ultimately—to each other. Their willingness to upload the photos to public sites or e-mail them to other individuals also hints at a possible revenue opportunity for carriers.

At the same time, this trend isn't commonplace everywhere. In Japan, for example, cell-phone-camera users don't generally transmit their photos from their phones. Rather, people tend to offload photos to a PC or print them—perhaps in a shop that offers a public printing station. Whatever you think about the cultural differences between the hardcopy people and the mobloggers, one thing is clear: People all over the world are using cell-phone cameras.

This year, InfoTrends Research Group estimates that there will be nearly 300 million digital-image-capture devices in use worldwide. Camera phones will account for about 60% of that number. Cell-phone cameras already outnumber conventional digital cameras.

This trend is great for handset makers. It also has nice implications for the whole high-tech economy. Consumers want new technology products. In the United States, however, service providers have been slow to recognize and leverage this desire. Consequently, the trend has lagged the rest of the world by 1.5 to 2 years—an eternity in this business.

To make the most of a technology trend, all of the players in the pipeline have to do their parts. Providers have to believe that there is a market and then back up that belief with customer support. Fortunately, consumers by the millions have shown their willingness to grab new technology—even without decent support at the retail level.

The cell-phone-camera business will become even more interesting when new CMOS modules arrive with megapixel resolutions. This move has already begun with CCD units. The advantages of CMOS modules will enable cell phones to claim much more of the digital-camera business. You might find a megapixel phone under your Christmas tree this year. If you're brave, you might just go shop for one yourself at the local cell-phone store.

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