Imaging Tech Worth Talking About for 2010

Imaging Tech Worth Talking About for 2010


In attempting to pick but five imaging-related technologies that we think are worth keeping an eye on over the course of the next year, it is inevitable that there will be a few significant ones we'll overlook.

The five we decided to look at here, some of which have been around for a while, are based on the thinking that they appear ready to have a major impact on the imaging market in the next 12-15 months, and that impact could get more significant as the months roll on.

For those of you who are keenly focused on the retail print and “social picturing” market, don't get the idea that we feel those are not vitally important segments for this industry in 2010. We're just focusing on tech in the image capture and realted behavior segments for this piece.

I'll admit, my crystal ball is just back from the shop so don't hold me to any of this, but I feel fairly certain you'll hear from these technologies at some point. So then, let's dive into our “Fabulous Five Techs” for 2010.

3D and Computational Imaging

Two developing technologies that will soon impact consumer photography took center stage at the recent 6Sight Future of Imaging conference.

3D imaging is of course in the limelight of late with the 3D motion picture “Avatar” raking it in at the box office, and the recent debut of dozens of 3D HD televisions. At 6Sight, attendees saw how this immersive imaging will come to consumers with both still and video capture, and multiple types of displays. The recently completed CES also added some fuel to this fire.

3D technology pioneer Lenny Lipton, the originator of the electronic stereoscopic display industry and the founder of StereoGraphics Corp., gave an overview of 3D technology from its beginnings to the latest gear to hit the market.

Among those new developments: the Fujifilm Finepix Real 3D, the first mass market consumer 3D camera. Fujifilm's senior product training manager, Jim Calverley, showcased both the Finepix Real 3D digital camera and photo viewer, and everyone got to try them throughout the two days of the 6Sight conference. The camera has dual 10 megapixel sensors, coupled with dual 3X optical zoom lenses and captures both 3D photos and video.

Even more potentially groundbreaking than 3D is computational photography, which can truly advance the state of imaging by breaking away from the old paradigm of optics and a capture medium of either film of an electronic sensor.

As demonstrated by Ramesh Raskar, head of the Camera Culture research group at the MIT Media Lab, computational photography works with not just one sensor but potentially dozens, and not just one in-camera processor but instead plentiful low-cost computing and memory. All this can work “to go beyond just mimicking what a human eye can see,” Raskar says, and provide benefits to photography such as enhanced light sensitivity, resolution and picture quality — and to change the way we shape, build and use cameras to make it possible for the photographer to get out from behind the lens and “get back in the picture.”

The “Flexibility” of OLED

Several of the major display manufacturers have shown flexible ultrathin active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLED) displays, as well as new electrophoretic displays aimed largely at the e-book market in the last few months.

We're already starting to see lots of OLEDs in the digital camera and digital frame markets and the advantages are obvious (low power consumption, excellent color gamut, fast response time and light weight) but the idea of the aforementioned flexible, ultrathin AMOLED has infinite possibilities.

Flexibility in the OLED market should be viewed as more than merely a competitive advantage. Polymer Vision Ltd. (Eindhoven, Netherlands), which makes the Readius pocket reader, recently discussed the use of rollable or foldable displays to deliver a display that is larger than the parent device. A cell phone, for example, could contain a display that would unroll to twice the size of the phone. If such a device actually comes to market, our guess is the digital camera market wouldn't be far behind. And a paper thin, flexible display screen would appear to have massive appeal to mainstream consumers from our perspective.

Sony is in this game as well and is expected to debut this technology in the TV market in Japan later this year. Germany-based Orkin Design has also introduced the Rolltop, a roll-up 17-inch laptop. The Orkin laptop can also transform into a tablet PC operable with a stylus, or become a standup flat screen display. A power adapter and other features fit with the carrying canister that comes with a convenient holding strap.

Mini Lens Tech

There are several companies out there that are currently producing revolutionary miniature optics for mobile imaging—manufacturers like Rhevision Technology and Tessera come to mind. The technology includes fixed and up to 3x optical zoom/auto-focus lens systems targeting multiple billion dollar high-growth markets such as security and surveillance cameras, biometric cameras, handheld chemical sensors, barcode scanners, surgical cameras, real-time unified communication cameras and digital still cameras.

We've already written about the advancements Tessera has made here but Rhevision's recent work might be game changing as well. They are producing highly advanced miniature camera lenses using their patented fluidic lens technology. The company is combining fluidics and optics in a unique manner, allowing them to make highly tunable, miniature optical lenses that: a) reduce the number of parts required by traditional lenses, b) are the track length of traditional lenses and c) decrease the cost of traditional lenses.

Early last year, Rhevision was awarded an 18 month, $1.55 million contract from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for the development of camera-based chemical sensors to be integrated into cell phones. This market is just starting to heat up and its effect on the cameraphone category will be dramatic.

Liquid Lens Technology

First off all, you might be asking, what is liquid lens tech? A liquid lens uses one or more fluids to create an infinitely variable lens without any moving parts by controlling the meniscus (the surface of the liquid.) There are two primary types, transmissive and reflective. These are not to be confused with liquid-formed lenses that are created by placing a drop of plastic or epoxy on a surface, which is then allowed to harden into a lens shape.

Why is this a potentially big deal? Well, with glass, plastic and other hard materials, it's impossible to quickly change the shape of the lens and, therefore, to focus: to adjust the focal length, you need to physically move the lens. Extremely small cameras and many cell phones simply don't have enough room to allow users to move a rigid lens the distance required for a range of focal lengths. An adaptive liquid lens, however, enables small cameras to focus without needing any extra room. “Liquids are a favorite material to work with when you want to change the shape of a lens,” explains Amir Hirsa, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Rensselaer. “For the mobile imaging market this is a key advantage of this technology.”

Hirsa added that camera phones will soon have lenses made from nothing more substantial than a couple of drops of oil and water, but will still be capable of auto focusing and will add powerful zoom capability.

Lyon, France-based Varioptic is one of the leaders in this area. Their liquid lenses actually contain drops of oil and water, acting respectively as conductor and insulator, sandwiched between two windows. These liquid lenses could replace glass or plastic ones because of several advantages: no moving parts, leading to better reliability; a very small power consumption; very small dimensions (diameter: 8mm; thickness: 2mm); and a very fast response time of 2/100th of a second.

This isn't a future tech as it is currently being employed by Seiko Instruments. The company recently signed an agreement with Varioptic to develop, manufacture and market Liquid Lens products. The two companies explain the agreement will, “achieve significant penetration with Liquid Lens products in the fast-growing camera module market and other large volume end equipment markets such as bar codes and Webcams.”

A “Pico” Into the Future

Okay, we're cheating a bit as we featured this technology in last year's Tech Watch but, with a legion of young Americans still walking around with their faces buried in tiny two-to-three-inch screens watching movies, surfing the Net and yes, sometimes even sharing images, we still feel they'd enjoy the experience far more if the screens were just a bit bigger. But alas, then the portability factor is taken away.

Well, now they can make the screen bigger whenever they want with the Pico-Projection system. What's different about this tech from a year ago is it's starting to show up in myriad products. Nikon's Coolpix S1000pj with Pico tech debuted last year along with several camera phones carrying the technology, and we think this is merely the start of something big.

To review, Pico projectors that use either laser, LED or hybrid laser/LED illumination. Our first peek at this tech was at the 2008 CES, as Texas Instruments demo'd a cell phone-sized prototype of its digital-light projector (DLP), which uses a MEMS chip with a million micro-mirrors to project images. More recently, Microvision tells us they have downsized the Pico projector by replacing TI's million-mirror MEMS chip with its own single-mirror MEMS chip. The company claims this system can now be produced cheaply enough “to become standard equipment on future cell phones and digital cameras.”We still think the impact of this one is just beginning to be felt.

Promise Keepers

Finally, we spoke recently with the folks at I3A who truly have their finger on the pulse of the imaging industry. The organization's president, Lisa Walker, mentioned Scott Brownstein, today a well-known imaging industry consultant who worked at Kodak for almost a quarter century years ago, and his recent prescription for the imaging industry. Brownstein explains that we have a long way to go to deliver on the digital promises that have been made, and he added that consumers don't know where to turn.

He explains that rapid technology advances have created confusion; new technology, new tools, cloud storage, social network sites, cheap memory, a camera in every device. “Erstwhile market leaders have failed to embrace the digital world: they are afraid of the Web, but the Web is not the enemy; prints are the enemy,” he explained. The companies who ARE leading the digital photo revolution are NOT imaging companies, he added.

Brownstein believes we can look to the banking industry for an example of how to save consumer digital imaging. What digital can deliver is ubiquitous access to images, wherever they are located, from wherever the consumer is, just as ATMs, debit cards, credit cards, online banking, and mobile banking do for money management: wherever you are, you can access, use and manage your money.

He opines that the imaging industry can collaborate to create the same kind of ecosystem that will deliver on the aforementioned digital promise, to give people the same conveniences with, as he explains, “their nearly-as-valuable photo collection as they have with their bank accounts.”

Brownstein believes JFIF and IPTC tags could be a good place to start. It will take widespread industry support, perhaps through an organization like I3A, and it takes open standards. Brownstein concluded, “To succeed, we must give consumers what they need, disguised as what they want.”

Who are we to argue with that logic?

February 2010 • • February 2010