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Wireless Systems Design

Cell-Phone Cameras Expand Opportunistic Photography

Photography often revolves around planned events, such as birthdays or weddings. Or, it relies on professional shoots. But even studiously prepared photographs must appear somehow impromptu. The images that photographers treasure most tend to be the pure opportunity shots that were captured with a combination of talent, providence, and whatever equipment was at hand.

The emergence of digital point-and-shoot cameras helped to enhance photographers' spontaneity (if not their talent). They also introduced photography to a new generation of users. The next wave of digital innovation promises to further expand this user base. It could even alter the boundaries of amateur photography. More importantly, however, the capture and sharing of images will become an intrinsic part of daily life. It will be as natural as making a phone call or—more specifically—a cell-phone call.

Far from pie-in-the-sky forecasting, this trend is already evident. Cell-phone-camera sales have been drawing market share from digital point-and-shoot cameras for the past two years. Emerging low-power, higher-pixel-count, CMOS image sensors promise to compete against low-end digital cameras—specifically the 1- to 2-megapixel, fixed-lens devices.

Many camera-equipped cell-phone models on the shelves today rely on the more familiar CCD technology. CMOS technology actually predates those CCDs, however. Early on, the superior image quality and lower signal noise of CCDs quickly overshadowed CMOS. In fact, CCDs remain the favored technology for high-end digital still cameras.

Yet CCD image sensors require the integration of numerous external components and power supplies. They also consume more operating power. These demands create problems for cell-phone makers, who are constrained by stringent size, power, and cost concerns.

Unlike CCDs, CMOS imagers integrate the light-sensing elements and electronic-conditioning circuits on a single chip. This integration helps to reduce cost and power consumption. In addition, the advances in CMOS chip manufacturing and signal-processing technology steadily improved these chips' performance. They also set the stage for CMOS sensors that deliver less noise, sharper pictures, and better color reproduction.

Although they were once something of a red herring in consumer imaging, CMOS chips have become a hot property that attracts industry giants and small companies alike. All of them are tapping the technology's potential for enabling matchbook-sized camera modules for cellular phones and a host of other personal electronics devices. Meanwhile, manufacturers have begun viewing photo capture as a highly marketable feature.

Outside the corporate boardroom, though, what will improved CMOS technology mean to photographers and photography? The future has already arrived in Japan. There, the number of phone-cam users more than doubled from 2002 to 2003. That number promises to continue growing in the double digits this year. In fact, the number of pictures that the Japanese are shooting with their cell-phone cameras has already outpaced the amount taken with digital still cameras. Brain Co. performed a survey on this subject in 2002. It provides a snapshot of how the Japanese use their phone cams:

  • Almost half of respondents snapped shots several times a week, while over half used their cell-phone cameras several times a month.
  • The images captured were largely of family and friends followed consecutively by pets, self-portraits, landscapes, and—at only 0.2%—information.
  • Most pictures were taken at night and/or indoors, suggesting the importance of flash and higher-sensitivity image sensors.

In addition, 84% of respondents said that they would take more pictures if quality improved. Image quality therefore appears to have a direct correlation to frequency of use. If quality and functionality were to reach acceptable levels in Japan, phone cams could eventually displace 1- to 2-megapixel, fixed-lens digital cameras.

The data from Japan also hints at the cell-phone camera's influence on sharing and storage. Sharing images with friends via e-mail is the primary motivation for using the phone cam. But over two-thirds expressed a desire to also print the pictures that were taken.

This capability may become more likely as phone-cam resolutions go to 1 megapixel and beyond. The majority of today's U.S.-deployed phone cams are VGA resolution. Yet 1-megapixel phones have begun to appear here. Meanwhile, several 2- and 3-megapixel phones have hit the shelves in Japan.

As wireless imaging devices proliferate on this shore, U.S. users will discover their own imaging opportunities. Early devices may produce image quality that would normally be limited to consumer photography. Yet many professional photographers may still find them very useful. A photographer who is scouting locations or sampling product shots, for example, will be able to immediately and remotely submit sample images to the home office. There also is the obvious potential for newsgathering and video journalism. As the volume of cell-phone cameras on the streets increases, more and more unexpected but newsworthy footage will appear. Like their high-end cousins, the cameras in cell phones won't produce talent where there is none. But they will increase the potential opportunities for photographers.

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