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Digital Cameras: Megapixels are not everything.

Posted on: 30-Oct-2007

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What the future may bring in digital cameras.
 
There is a general perception that the digital camera market is about to roll over. It is true that just about everyone that wants one, has one. And at 6MP you reach plenty of resolution for snap shots. But these technical aspects of the market ignore the social and biological aspects.
 
On the social side, there is the user perspective. The user doesn’t care about pixels. They care about recording great images. There’s nothing more disappointing than having captured the great family candid portrait, think you have it, and then get to your PC later only to find the eyes are out of focus. Problems like these are great opportunities for camera makers. There needs to be portrait focus mode. So why not take the red-eye phenomenon or the fact that pupils are black, turn them on its head, and use it to identify exactly where to focus: on the eyes. The technology is here today. The opportunity is there. It just needs some execution.
 
From the camera manufacturer perspective, centuries of thinking film and the idea that customers buy cameras clouds the perspective. Customers pay for cameras, but they buy images or closer to the mark: memory capture. Camera designers are far from totally comprehending digital technology. For example it took forever for to come up with a floating ISO akin to Aperture or Speed priority (thank you Nikon!). It took so long to comprehend because they were thinking film. Few now get the idea that the chip is the film. As Moore’s Law drives the chip technology, image sensors will drive the market. That makes image sensors as important as the optics. As an aside, better computer technology and advances in scanner optics are making for huge advancements in camera lenses. This all gives people a need to buy new cameras every couple of years — providing they can make the development
 
From the biological perspective, there are lots to develop in terms of image sensors and processing. Like an image sensor, the eye is made up of lots of photo-receptor cells that convert photons into electrical signals. These cells respond to different wavelengths and the amplitudes of each are converted by the brain into an image. That’s about where the similarities end. First, image sensors and digital cameras respond to light in a linear fashion. Your eye is non-linear. It can automatically remove color casts and each cell can, in effect, be set to the amplitude the light it receives. So, your eyes come with high dynamic range imaging capability. Some of us have three color photo receptors (called cone cells). But some have four. Unlike an image sensor chip, where a filter narrows down the wavelengths and is captured as grey scale data, the eye’s receptors appear to have the ability to capture a variation of wavelengths along with the grey scale data. Moreover they are not RGB (Red/Green/Blue). The eye’s receptors tend to respond to blue-violet (peaking at 420nm), blue-green (534nm), and yellow-green (564nm) with each having a bandwidth of about 200nm. In addition to these, the eye also has rod cells, which are for low light. They outnumber cone cells by 20X and respond to 498nm light; as one would expect because that’s the primary component of moonlight. They respond within a range of 400 and 600nm wavelengths. An interesting twist to this is that as light fades we see more blue than is actually there. This is why photos taken from a linear process like an image sensor, rarely duplicate what we see.
 
It is these complexities that lead me to believe that we are on the forefront of a whole new world in camera technology that will be driven by Moore’s Law. As more transistors can be applied to these problems, more can be learned and more can be developed.
 
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