Panasonic promises better low-light images with sensitivity-boosting sensor tech
Lauren Crabbe | Published: Feb 4, 2013 at 16:28 UTC1
When the lights go out, digital photos may lose color saturation or look ultra-noisy. A new development from Panasonic promises to address that problem. The electronics giant says it can increase the sensitivity of camera sensors by placing 'micro color splitters' in front of the sensor to provide color information.
According to Panasonic, the commonly used color filter array method to detect color in digital cameras blocks 50-70% of incoming light. The company’s new prism-like micro splitters separate the light into its component colors and allow almost all of it to reach the sensor. The result of this process, Panasonic claims, is an automatic doubling of a digital imaging sensor’s sensitivity.
The new technology can be used with existing imaging sensors—including the CMOS sensor type commonly used in smartphones.
Read the full press release:
Panasonic Develops Technology for Highly Sensitive Image Sensors Using Micro Color Splitters
Osaka, Japan - Panasonic Corporation has developed unique "micro color splitters", which separate the light that falls on image sensors by exploiting light's wavelike properties. Applying them to actual image sensors allows bright color images to be achieved even under low-light conditions. This development makes color filters unnecessary by using the micro color splitters that control the diffraction of light at a microscopic level. Panasonic has achieved approximately double the color sensitivity in comparison with conventional sensors that use color filters.
Image sensors are used in devices like smartphones, digital still cameras and video cameras, as well in security, vehicle parking, office, and healthcare applications - anywhere, in fact, that digital imaging is needed. Conventional color image sensors use a Bayer array, in which a red, green, or blue light-transmitting filter is placed above each sensor. These filters block 50 - 70% of the incoming light before it even reaches the sensor. Progress is being made in increasing the resolution of image sensors used in mobile and other devices by reducing pixel size, but demand for higher-sensitivity cameras is also increasing. Panasonic has developed a new technology that can be applied to existing or future sensors to enable them to capture uniquely vivid color images.
The developed technology has the following features.
Using color alignment, which can use light more efficiently, instead of color filters, vivid color photographs can be taken at half the light levels needed by conventional sensors.
Micro color splitters can simply replace the color filters in conventional image sensors, and are not dependent on the type of image sensor (CCD or CMOS) underneath.
Micro color splitters can be fabricated using inorganic materials and existing semiconductor fabrication processes.
This development is based on the following new technology.
A unique method of analysis and design based on wave optics that permits fast and precise computation of wave-optics phenomena.
Device optimization technologies for creating micro color splitters that control the phase of the light passing through a transparent and highly-refractive plate-like structure to separate colors at a microscopic scale using diffraction.
Layout technologies and unique algorithms that allow highly sensitive and precise color reproduction by combining the light that falls on detectors separated by the micro color splitters and processing the detected signals.
Panasonic holds 21 Japanese patents and 16 overseas patents, including pending applications, for this development.
This development is described in general terms in the Advance Online Publication version of Nature Photonics issued on February 3, 2013.
More on the Technology
1. Unique method of analysis and design based on wave optics permitting fast and precise computation of wave-optics phenomena
FDTD is widely used to analyze light in wave form, but its heavy computation workload has up to now made it impractical for designing micro color splitters. On the other hand, BPM is an effective method of fast computation, but it has lower precision than FDTD and cannot accurately simulate color splitting. This prompted Panasonic to develop a practical and original design method that permits fast and precise computation of wave-optics phenomena. This technology allows the precise modeling of optical phenomena such as reflection, refraction, and diffraction by modeling spaces in regions with different optical constants and applying BPM to the spaces. This method can be applied not only to the design of micro color splitters, but can be extended to the design of other nano-scale optical processing systems.
2. Device optimization technologies leading to the creation of micro color splitters that control the phase of the light passing through a transparent and highly-refractive plate-like structure and use diffraction to separate colors on a microscopic scale
Color separation of light in micro color splitters is caused by a difference in refractive index between a) the plate-like high refractive material that is thinner than the wavelength of the light and b) the surrounding material. Controlling the phase of traveling light by optimizing the shape parameters causes diffraction phenomena that are seen only on a microscopic scale and which cause color separation. Micro color splitters are fabricated using a conventional semiconductor manufacturing process. Fine-tuning their shapes causes the efficient separation of certain colors and their complementary colors, or the splitting of white light into blue, green, and red like a prism, with almost no loss of light.
3. Layout technologies and unique algorithms that enable highly sensitive and precise color reproduction by overlapping diffracted light on detectors separated by micro color splitters and processing the detected signals
Since light separated by micro color splitters falls on the detectors in an overlapping manner, a new pixel layout and design algorithm are needed. The layout scheme is combined and optimized using an arithmetic processing technique designed specifically for mixed color signals. The result is highly sensitive and precise color reproduction. For example, if the structure separates light into a certain color and its complementary color, color pixels of white + red, white - red, white + blue, and white - blue are obtained and, using the arithmetic processing technique, are translated into normal color images without any loss of resolution.