Startups Charts The Future of Camera Phones, Ends Megapixel Myth

From DailyBooth, which, thanks to the front facing cameras has become a quick way to share emotions and moods to, which has become a way to add pizzazz to one’s photos – the mobile photo revolution is unfolding around us. Not a day goes by when you don’t hear about yet another mobile photo sharing service-getting millions of dollars from investors, hoping to turn people’s life snaps into a business.

While it is unclear if there is gold buried in these pixels, one thing is for sure – the mobile photos could be better – in fact a lot better. Pelican Imaging, a Mountain View, Calif.-based technology start-up wants to change that – thanks to a radical new approach to mobile cameras and sensors, which depends more on software than megapixels.

The company that was co-founded by Aman Jabbi (CEO) and Kartik Venkataraman (CTO), life long chip-heads and former colleagues at Micron Imaging (now a standalone company called Aptina) in May 2008 and since then it has raised $ 17 million in two round of funding from the likes of Globespan Capital Partners, Granite Ventures, InterWest Partners and IQT. Jabbi says the company has a simple mission – bust the megapixel myth and make mobile imaging a radically new experience.

The MegaPixel Myth

First, let’s talk about the megapixel myth. Many of us believe that more megapixels we have on our mobile phone camera, the better will be our photos. Today, not a day goes by when some mobile phone manufacturer or the other boasts about the megapixels on the cameras they have crammed into their handsets. And yet, we all end-up snapping pictures that are dark, blurry, somewhat discolored and well, not very cool.

The reason for that is that while the mobile cameras might have the megapixels, the overall capabilities are not enough for the camera to grab as much light and process the images effectively. At a certain point, more megapixels become counter productive, unless there are certain other capabilities into the camera modules.

The digital picture quality is determined by multiple factors — pixel count, sensor size, lens quality and how the pixels are organized. In case of cellular cameras, the lenses are fixed focus and sensors are too small. Often, the resolution of the sensor sometimes exceeds the capabilities of the lens, which forces makers of cell-phones to use big lens, which often leads to ungainly looking cameras on phones.

Pelican has found a way to fix all those problems by using smart software and new camera module design. Instead of having a single camera of say 8 megapixels, they have developed a camera module that is made up of 25 micro-cameras. It is much thinner than the current generation of camera modules.

Software Is Sharp & Sexy

Pelican’s module is a camera array, which takes the optical data and processes it using special software (also created by Pelican) to create high quality images. Dual core processors and special media processors will turn tomorrow’s smartphones into screamers and Pelican uses that processing power for its special software.

The software allows the camera module to do many cool things. New applications are also enabled by introducing features such as 3-D depth, gesture control, and the ability for users to interact with the image before and after capturing the shot. Think of it as a way to create more realistic visual experiences. It allows the module to add create post-photo processing effects, for example. Think of it as the more advanced version of Apple’s HDR technology – a way to process photos using software that enhances those pictures.

“What we are doing is changing how light is captured on the cameras and allowing the camera modules to capture a lot more raw data, and you can do a lot with this data which is processed by our software,” Jabbi says.

Pelican’s technology is going to enable the thinner and smaller phones to have high-quality cameras. In order to get its technology to the market, Pelican’s VP of Marketing and Business Development, Oliver Gunasekara, formerly of ARM tells me the company is going to adopt the approach adopted by ARM, the mobile processor technology company that licenses its intellectual property and designs to chipmakers such as Qualcomm and Texas Instruments. Pelican’s technology will be embedded into the camera modules manufactures and phone makers, who will pay the company a small fee in order to use its technology.

Getting a buy-in from a large and diverse ecosystem is not easy – ask ARM which had spent a lot of years in chip wilderness before finding a way to profits and superstardom. It is a considerable challenge, but one thing going for Pelican is actually its technology. Some of the leading academics have signed on to advise and lend their expertise to the company. Professor Marc Levoy, of Stanford University a well know authority in computational photography who is on the technical board of advisers of Pelican noted:

“Pelican’s technology has the potential to upset the traditional tradeoff between the sensitivity and resolution of a camera and its thickness. It also brings new capabilities to cameras, including post-capture focusing, foveal imaging and programmable frame rates.  We have been investigating these aspects of computational photography in our laboratory at Stanford for a number of years, through the Stanford Multi-Camera Array, which is big, slow and expensive. Pelican’s solution is small, fast and inexpensive – which makes it a very exciting technology.”

Today, if you asked me what would Pelican do for you, my answer would be take better pictures of you when you are misbehaving with a beer buzz. In the future, it could help develop more realistic interactive visual experience in apps that would make today’s photo-sharing services simply primitive.

To sum it up, I would just say one thing – it is nice to see companies like Path and PicPlz get the attention, in reality it is technology innovators such as Pelican who really end-up making the difference.

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