Light partners with Sony to make smartphones with >4 cameras possible
Light is a company known for advanced computational imaging. At a time when computational photography becomes more and more popular, Light has entered the smartphone camera industry by making an agreement with Sony to jointly develop and market multi-image sensor solutions. In order to make sense of this news, let us have some background information on multiple camera smartphones first.
Smartphones with multiple cameras have a long and rich history. Smartphone cameras have always faced unique constraints because of the form factor of a phone, in terms of image sensor size, pixel size, optics, image processing, and more. In the early days, Android phones weren’t known for their camera performance. In the last five years, however, exponential improvements have taken place in the field of smartphone camera quality. One of these improvements has been the innovation of smartphones with multiple camera sensors.
Multiple camera sensors can be of many types. Portrait mode became a highly popular feature after its introduction in late 2016 as part of the Apple iPhone 7 Plus, so a secondary depth sensor has become a popular feature in smartphones ranging from the Xiaomi Redmi Note 6 Pro to the OnePlus 6T. Monochrome cameras can collect a lot more light, which is why Huawei used a B&W + color dual camera combination for a few years. A third constraint was focal length. Most smartphones don’t have interchangeable lens cameras due to the limitation on moving parts, which means that users have traditionally had to miss out on the flexibility of shooting with different focal lengths.
Multi-image sensor solutions solve that problem by using different sensors with different lenses and different focal lengths. You can have a telephoto camera with a 52mm focal length, which would provide 2x optical zoom in relation to a 26mm wide-angle lens. You can have a wide-angle camera with a 16mm focal length, which would provide 0.6x zoom (as seen on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro), in relation to a 27mm wide-angle camera. Triple camera arrangements with three different focal lengths, as seen on the LG V40 ThinQ, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, a few Samsung mid-range phones, and now the Samsung Galaxy S10, are becoming increasingly popular for this reason. This is where Light comes in.
The agreement between Light and Sony Semiconductor Solutions allows Light to use and recommend Sony’s image sensors that have built-in Light’s computational imaging solutions and reference designs to its customers and partners. These new reference designs combine Light’s multi camera technology together with Sony’s image sensors to create what are said to be new multi camera applications and solutions. The specific solution mentioned in the press release? Smartphones containing four or more cameras.
There is one smartphone in the rumors that contains multiple camera lenses, on track to be announced at MWC next week. It may be that Light’s computational imaging will power the unprecedented number of sensors and lenses, but at this point, this is only speculation. In 2017, Light showed a glimpse of what was to come by releasing a $2000 camera named Light L16. The L16 used 16 camera modules with different focal lengths (from 28mm to 150mm) to capture a single full-resolution 52MP image combining data from all the sensors. This let the user do things such as adjust focus after taking a photo, and even crop without losing image detail. Also, the 16 camera modules with different camera focal lengths ensured no moving parts, unlike a traditional DSLR or mirrorless camera.
It can be noted that many of the principles behind Light’s computational imaging tech has already been adopted by the likes of computational photography leaders such as Huawei, starting with the Huawei P20 Pro. It remains to be seen how smartphone camera technology evolves in 2019, but we are cautiously optimistic for the developments yet to take place.