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Analog Angle Blog

Digital Cameras Succumb to Integration Pressure: Same Fate for ICs?

It's not news that film/chemical-based photography is dead for almost all practical purposes, done in by the many virtues of digital cameras (no need to repeat them here, you know them well).

But there's an ironic twist to the story: Just a few years after digital cameras beat film photography into the ground, the stand-alone, low-end digital camera itself is under assault and is a quickly shrinking business. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal (sorry, it may be behind their paywall) had some numbers on the decline and fall of the basic digital camera. Two reasons for this: First, the cameras are pretty good and reliable, so there's less need to replace them; and more importantly, the ubiquitous use of smartphones with their embedded camera function of apparently sufficient quality for most people — plus the all-in-one convenience aspect.

(Source: Sony)

(Source: Sony)

In response, the camera makers are trying to go upscale, pushing cameras with more features, including GPS, WiFi, SLR-like functions and flexibility, interchangeable lenses, and more. Sony has even come out with clever attachments, the DSC-QX10 and DSC-QX100 accessory lenses, which bring some higher-end camera and lens capabilities to the smartphone.

What we have here is the next step in ongoing absorption of standalone products and their functions into a single central unit as the camera, GPS, voice recorder, and even traditional wallet are fading away (or is it assimilation? — can you say Borg?). It's not a new phenomenon: The desktop PC intended for business and office use soon acquired peripheral plug-in boards which let it take over the role of existing standalone, dedicated data acquisition and control units, test instrumentation, and other engineering and industrial functions.

We see the same situation on the smaller scale of ICs, as well. At first, functions closely linked to the A/D or D/A conversion core were integrated on-chip: digital I/O buffers, voltage references, signal scaling, conversion clocks, and more. It made sense, since you needed these for the conversion function.

But now we have passed well into the next phase of mixed-signal IC integration, where disparate functions are also put onto the same chip, making the component more application-specific and also becoming, to use a cliché, a “system on a chip.” For example, an ADC may also have a processor for data analysis, a high-level protocol and interface such as Ethernet for communications, system-level power management, and more.

Is this good or bad? As always, the answer is: “it depends.” For many designers, such highly integrated components are a good thing: They simplify the circuitry, reduce footprint, and dissipate less power. But they can also lull you into not seeing what compromises, if any, were made along the way, unless you look carefully at the data sheet and applications support collateral. For example, are SNR or ENOB sufficient for your application, or are they marginal with little headroom or cushion?

There's a parallel in the digital camera situation. A good image-capture depends on not just the physical resolution count (number of pixels) of the sensor array, but also the light-capture performance of the pixel elements themselves. Even more critical, a bigger and better lens is a major factor of actual image quality, and that small smartphone lens is far less able to capture light, and do so without chromatic aberration and distortion, than even a basic digital-camera lens — and mid-high range digital cameras have even better lenses, of course.

As for me, I'm sticking with my low-end (<$100) digital camera, for several reasons: I'm "old fashioned" (seems weird to say that about digital cameras) and like the form factor; I occasionally want to use a tripod, and even this basic camera has the tripod screw mount; and most important: zoom.

That's where it's easy to fool yourself with a smartphone camera. When you do a digital zoom, you literally throw away resolution: a 2X zoom cuts actual pixel resolution down to one quarter of its initial value, 3X zoom cuts it to one ninth. In contrast, an optical zoom doesn’t degrade resolution at all.

As always, the engineering decision on how much integration makes sense is not an easy one. But it's a conscientious engineer who looks past the “all-in-one” headline to see what compromises, if any, had to be made, and if they are acceptable.

What's been your experience with tradeoffs of integrated solutions?

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27 comments on “Digital Cameras Succumb to Integration Pressure: Same Fate for ICs?

  1. RedDerek
    January 12, 2014

    I enjoyed the old film cameras – especially when it came to playing with all that developer chemistry work after “shooting a roll” (would kids even know what this term means these days?).

    I did move to the digital camera realm but found the fast moving shots were not that good with the cheap cameras and cell phones. Hence a good SLR was purchased to replace the film camera – 6 megapixel (OK, it was 6 years ago).

    My new smart phone takes some pretty good pics with the 8 megapixel camera.

    As for the zooming, a good Carl-Zeiss lens system kept that pixel quality over the digital zoom.

  2. eafpres
    January 12, 2014

    In my early adopter phase with mobile phones I could not see why a camera would be needed.  Now, it seems obvious since most photos end up online on social media and resolution isn't that big of a deal.  It would be interesting to analyze historically the complementary effects of phones with cameras on social media and online services and vice-versa.  I suspect that each would not be where it is today without the other.

    Digital zoom is a joke for the most part.  Of course there is a Nokia (Microsoft) model that apparently has a very high pixel count sensor and they figured out how to put a bigger lens in front of it such that they can zoom over a range and the quality seems constant.  I haven't used one but I would guess the stored resolution without zoom is less than the resolution of the sensor.

    I think one reason to upgrade to newer cameras (not phones) is the obsolescence created by OS updates and lack of drivers.  I have an old Canon camera that I no longer can talk to with Windows 7.  It has a pretty low resolution sensor (I think around 4 MPixels) but a really good lens; for many things it outperformed much higher resolution models.  The other upgrade path is to get newer cameras with WiFi etc. and software that supports moving pictures directly to the internet, social media, and printers.  That is another level of integration–integrating all the camera circuitry along with all the connectivity in SoC would further drop cost.

  3. samicksha
    January 13, 2014

    The only thing i hate about SLR cameras, they cannot be made as small or as light as other camera designs, but with same i recently saw Nokia Lumia 1020, the 41 megapixel sensor features Zeiss optics and a choice of six physical lenses, plus optical image stabilisation, claiming to deliver crystal clear pictures even in low light conditions. Do people still need a camera if they own such phone ??

  4. Victor Lorenzo
    January 13, 2014

    Do people still need a camera if they own such phone ?? ” Good question. But I wonder, why would people want to have such a phone?

  5. RedDerek
    January 13, 2014

    As eafpres commented that the social media does not need the high res images. The 41M pixel camera is focused on the quality and shutter speed which the phone cameras are not necessarily at. Especially for the cost factor.

    I did read an article about a 2B pixel camer up in space – yes, Billion.

  6. samicksha
    January 15, 2014

    I understand your point Victor, infact even i had similar kind of question but then i read a report in techcrunch, which says Lumia 1020 on the high-end, coupled with the software improvements in Windows Phone 8, appear to have unlocked, at last, the keys to growth in the United States .

  7. KrisSz
    January 15, 2014

    As far as cameras are concerned, I have two wishes:
    – To be able to reuse my old lenses (Contax) with a digital camera
       Remembering what I went through to save the money, I am loath to chuck;

    – No delay on the shutter

    As to Integration pressures, what it offers is the facility for multiple manufacturers to offer me-too products & fight on price.   Each time a foundry introduces new silicon, all specs are upgraded.  So who is left who understands the product type ?

    As a company, we have always  worked from basics, with our products based on standard low-cost micro-controllers;  if necessary optimising performance using machine code.   After over 30 years in the business, we have built up the knowledge base to produce truly innovative products.

    It is hard work;  you need to keep learning.   I can still remember having to re-learn my designs from voltage to current operation (valve to germanium transistors).   But what it meant was that I fully understood the circuits.

    Now, as an employer, I have massive problems recruiting engineers who understand even the basics of the analogue circuitry they need to use, even of the digital.   What they want is the solution on a plate from the chip manufacturer.

    At some point, we may find that only one manufacturer understands the process !
    No thank you.

    For those who are interested, we measure electricity

  8. samicksha
    January 17, 2014

    If you account on SLR for shutter speed, i guess its mirror blacks-out the view finder image during the exposure. In addition, the movement of the reflex mirror takes time, limiting the maximum shooting speed.

  9. samicksha
    January 21, 2014

    How does this look like, any experiances.

    Source: beyondmarket

  10. jkvasan
    January 24, 2014

    Bill, You nailed it. First of all the central point, as I understand, is not the camera as it is used as an analogy. I see nothing wrong in Analog ICs trying to implement the digital functions but the core Analog processing ability could suffer. The problem of interference from crystal and internal oscillators also add up to those SNR and ENOB issues.

  11. amrutah
    January 25, 2014

    Samicksha:  “Do people still need a camera if they own such phone”

        Even though it is loaded with a 41MP lense and image stabilization present, there would be other features like aperture/shutter control that might be needed to capture different scenarios.  A 41MP image will have good clearity but would also consume a lot of storage.  Certainly it cannot replace a camera.

      But I cannot disagree with you when it comes to integration of such a camera into a phone is stupendous achievement.

      Any more information regarding the image processing features of that cam-phone?

  12. amrutah
    January 25, 2014

    RedDerek,

        I agree the phones are usually marketed on the cost factor rather than the quality of the camera on them.

      There is one camera,”Plenoptic camera” that is also fascinating.  The camera is made up of array of microlens. With these cameras you can capture the image first then you can refocus the image in computer.

     

  13. amrutah
    January 25, 2014

    I am usually associated with the integration of power management IC's but integration of Digital Camera chipsets is distant far.

      But the integration of digital cameras in automotives, home security can call for more integration.  The Car-2-car commmunication would need a lot of audio-video communications, GPS, low-light capture, high shutter speeds will call for more integration.

      

  14. samicksha
    January 27, 2014

    I agree you @amrutah, i dont have much info in hand about picture quality but camera in phone highly depends on it processing speed beacuse its not just camera which works we have number of other applications working at backend, and about this Nokia phone, I guess it comes with high quality and 4.5″ AMOLED WXGA (1280×768 pixels) display.

  15. PCR
    January 30, 2014

    Victor, Nice way of questioning
    But simply I will not by a phone without at least 5mp camera on it, up to that level it has become a basic need of a phone.

  16. PCR
    January 30, 2014

    Samicksha, Actually I ordered on of this for my Samsun tab from eBay. I believe that this will be very useful gadget for the price I have pad. Looking forward to share some pics with the different. 

  17. PCR
    January 30, 2014

    Amruthah, I believe that the Sony and the Samsun phones with a 5mp camera is a good deal for the prices, quality of the pictures is not that much cheap. It's much more enough quality of the pics to personal usage. 

  18. Victor Lorenzo
    January 30, 2014

    @Singhe. from my point of view in the last ten-to-five years mobile phones have evolved towards some sort of mobile device that almost as a side effect, and amongst many other things, serves to make phone calls. Making phone calls seems like not being it's primary function any more. This sort of devices have one serious limitation, at least from my user experience, you can not go too far for too long from the charger as a full batery charge lasts from just a few hours to at most one day, supposing you keep it active (calling, browsing, playing, etc.) for just a fraction of the day. This specialy holds true for high end models with multi-core CPUs and multi-core GPUs (which is of course expected).

    I don't miss more pixels in my mobile phone's camera, which is 5mpxs I should confess, but I do miss hours of life for its battery.

     

  19. yalanand
    January 31, 2014

    The camera is made up of array of microlens. With these cameras you can capture the image first then you can refocus the image in computer.

    @amrutah, thanks for sharing this info. I am curious to know what is the typical size of the picture taken from “Plenoptic camera”. Is it comparable to the size of the picture taken from normal cameras ?

  20. yalanand
    January 31, 2014

    I don't miss more pixels in my mobile phone's camera, which is 5mpxs I should confess, but I do miss hours of life for its battery.

    @Victor, I totally agree with you. I think many of us more worried about the battery life. Companies should try to build batteries which have longer life. Companies should try to add features like self-recharging smartphones so that smartphones automatically gets recharged when the phone is not being used.

  21. yalanand
    January 31, 2014

     Even though it is loaded with a 41MP lense and image stabilization present, there would be other features like aperture/shutter control that might be needed to capture different scenarios

    @amrutah, I totally agree with you. I think one more advantage of using camera's is we can add extra lenses like Zoom lens, wide-angle lens etc. This is not possible in mobile cameras.

  22. yalanand
    January 31, 2014

     Do people still need a camera if they own such phone ??

    @samicksha, true SLR cameras are pretty heavy but you cannot substitue the quality of images which you get from SLR. Features like ISO is hard to implement in mobile cameras.

  23. samicksha
    February 1, 2014

    @Yalanand: A layman user doesn't care much about core technical specification, the only thing they prefer is good picture quality and zoom capacity. Even i dont say that phones can replace camera, variety of lenses in SLR also allows for the camera to be used and adapted in many different situations.

  24. samicksha
    February 1, 2014

    @Ranasinghe: Gr8, Please share your experiance with gadget. I am not sure but google tech sepcification says that product is extremely impressive.

  25. amrutah
    February 1, 2014

    Is it comparable to the size of the picture taken from normal cameras ?

    @Yalanand: Plenoptic cameras are Low-light field cameras, which are suited for capturing the pictures in low light.  The micro lenses capture the image with whatever light is available (exposure) but the depth-of-field is tried to maintain high.  These cameras usually capture low resolution images of the order of 1.2MP.

      Lytro is one such plenoptic camera.

  26. Davidled
    February 1, 2014

    Audio/Video communication would be required but in the most, I think that the same communication protocol should be used for all vehicles of a different OEM so that each vehicle will communicate with other vehicle.  

  27. amrutah
    February 2, 2014

    “…communication protocol should be used for all vehicles of a different OEM…”

    @DaeJ: You are right all the OEMs should get aligned to the same protocol so that the communication is effective.  The European vehicle manufacturers have formed a consortium to frame the protocols and communication algorithms.  Read more here about Car 2 Car Communication Consortium (C2C-CC)

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