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What will smartphones cameras of the future look like?

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Is this what smartphones of the future will look like? 

Most of us carry around an absolutely incredible device in our pockets: a combination of phone, computer and camera that allows us to document and connect with the world around us. These smartphones and all the software that's come with them have majorly disrupted the field of photography and significantly eroded low-end camera sales. With ever-better improvements continuously expected, this dynamic technology has us wondering what's in store. Will the constant upgrade cycle and users' desire for new features make for smartphones with super cameras? Or maybe they’ll play more nicely as companion gadgets to dedicated cameras, rather than attempting to do it all themselves. Looking at what’s currently rumored to be in the works, maybe we can wrap our heads around what the future of such connected cameras -- and photography -- might look like.

Future scenario #1: A camera's companion

There's one obvious trend that we're just starting to see take off now: better integration between smartphones and cameras. Now that Wi-Fi has trickled down to even the most affordable point-and-shoot, it’s pretty straightforward to connect your smartphone and camera together. That might make for easy transfer of pictures, but it also means remotely controlling your camera from your phone. Wi-Fi will only continue to become more ubiquitous, and with Panasonic’s recent GF6, NFC (Near Field Communications) is even getting in on the mix. It’s a move toward making your phone a companion to your camera rather than a replacement, which could combine the convenience of the former with the image quality of the latter.

And then there are the likes of TriggerTrap and CamRanger, which allow you to remote control your DLSR (though you need a fancy cable for that to work). They let you make time lapses and sound-triggered photography without requiring an expensive and intricate rig. Hopefully as more DSLRs get Wi-Fi connectivity, we’ll see direct control by smartphones become nearly standard.

Future scenario #2: More connected cameras

Simultaneously, the other big shift that you’ve probably noticed is that smartphones and cameras are becoming more and more integrated — and this is the route that may see the smartphone replace the low-end camera all together.

The Samsung Galaxy Camera could be a trendsetter for more connected cameras of the future.

Android's open source software has enabled the mobile OS to be loaded on most any device, spawning Android-powered cameras like the Samsung Galaxy Camera, the Nikon S800c and that Polaroid monstrosity. And you can’t look at what Sony has been doing with apps in the NEX line and not see the connection to the way that people have been trained up to use smartphones.

Future scenario #3: Super smartphones

The most forward-thinking developers are already dreaming big things for the future of smartphones. Smarter software, larger sensors and longer lenses could reshape these devices entirely and make us cherish our mobile companions even more.

Nokia showed off the Nokia Morph concept device back in 2010, already hinting at a flexible handset.  

Smarter software

While smartphones may lag behind in the hardware front, they’re generally miles ahead when it comes to software.

Sony has tried to keep up on the newer NEX cameras with the Play Memories apps, but a robust app ecosystem means its far easier to push boundaries on the software side while the hardware side might still struggle. That means that apps like RemoveRewindTime Shift and Zoe can add functionality that isn’t baked into the hardware, and allows for features that simply won’t be added to a traditional camera. And it also allows for far out applications like Glitché, which no self-respecting camera manufacturer would intentionally include. And if some small developer figures out a way to improve image quality noticeably from a small sensor, it would be far easier for them to push it out as an app than to market it to a major camera manufacturer.

Google recently patented technology that would allow your smartphone to adjust its settings based on your local weather. While this may not sound particularly useful, think of it as something like auto white balance. It could tap into information about your local weather system and adjust your photo settings to take the best possible photographs for an overcast day, blinding sunlight or a snow-covered field.

Larger sensor size

Hopefully, as the internals of the smartphone continue to shrink, that allows more space for the sensor to grow, which would probably have the greatest single benefit on image quality.

While the inexorable growth of megapixels seems to have slowed with dedicated cameras, it appears to be moving ahead at full pace in the world of smartphones. This year has seen the rapid spread of 13-megapixel imaging sensors in the likes of the Sony Xperia Z and the Samsung Galaxy S4.

And who can forget the Nokia 808 PureView, with its 41-megapixel 1/1.2"sensor? That sensor was far larger than anything else we’ve seen in a smartphone, and hasn’t been matched since (though there may be a followup in the works). It used the large megapixel count to crop down to an 8-megapixel image, allowing a theoretical boost in image quality due to pixel-binning, or else essentially offering a zoom without a zoom lens.

Sony is also pegged to be working on a 20-megapixel 1/1.6-inch sensor, dubbed “Honami. That’ll put it slightly below the 808 PureView, but still remarkably large.

The pixel-binning route was something that Fujifilm has been pushing for years with its EXR sensors, and there's potential here for smartphone sensors too. While a 13-megapixel image doesn’t make much sense for a smartphone, those megapixels could be used in conjunction to create a lower noise or wider dynamic range smaller image. Also think about how many compact cameras can offer high-speed video or faster burst modes at reduced resolution, which might work with a smartphone, too.

HTC has also been working on some interesting technology with its “ultrapixel” sensor. By massively cutting the number of megapixels and introducing optical image stabilization, the company has has attempted to better the low light performance of the phone. But the images only clock in at 4-megapixels, and that’s at a rather awkward 16:9 ratio. While HTC is obviously going for the fewer but larger pixels strategy, 4MP is probably a bit too low for many people.

One of the more farfetched — but still interesting — rumors is that Nikon is working on a sensor for the Google Nexus 5. This alleged “triple sensor” array would mean bringing a camera company onboard directly to help improve image quality. But given that Nikon is working on their own Android devices, you have to wonder if this is a deal either company would actually make.

Comments

Total comments: 20
Emacs23
By Emacs23 (May 9, 2013)

Square sensor please. I hate shooting phones in landscape orientation.

0 upvotes
jxzouqing
By jxzouqing (May 9, 2013)

small and smart phone camera

0 upvotes
Felix E Klee
By Felix E Klee (May 8, 2013)

Scifi: The whole back one big sensor, with micro-lenses on top, plus voodoo signal processing. ;-)

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (May 8, 2013)

the voodoo will be essential here :-)

0 upvotes
Ingloryon
By Ingloryon (May 8, 2013)

I think that there are some points everybody here is ignoring. Battery. Its been a real fight to keep smartphones up for more than a day with the constant and growing use of them. More complex lenses, sensors, processing, etc, might kill the battery fastly and I do not need to say the implication of that. Digicams, in the other hand, are not so constant and massively used, being able to last long enough despite all the complexity. Thats the major barrier, I guess.

2 upvotes
M Lammerse
By M Lammerse (May 8, 2013)

Good point, my new smart phone is within 1 to 2 days empty, and i'm not a heavy user.

But fuel cell technology and new and smarter much faster recharging seems to be around the corner.

Comment edited 40 seconds after posting
1 upvote
vFunct
By vFunct (May 8, 2013)

There needs to be a Bluetooth Device Profile for cameras so that Cell phones/tablets/etc. can pull photos from Cameras to post on social media, without having to do the whole transfer data first.

I should be able to take a shot on my camera, as a separate device, and process/post photos from that camera using my cell phone.

Right now, there is no instant way to use the images in the camera from your cell phone.

A Bluetooth device profile for a camera would help in that. The phone should be able to receive the catalog of images from the camera, the thumbnails, and on the phone, we should be able to sort/select/process, and then the files should only be transferred from the Camera to the Phone as needed. (maybe via a separate WiFi band from Bluetooth..)

And really, there is no reason high-end DSLRs like the D4 shouldn't be connected as well. Pros actually need the highest-speed connectivity the most, with custom apps, too.

0 upvotes
vFunct
By vFunct (May 8, 2013)

And we don't need a fancy in-phone cameras if we can get the phones to interact with the cameras as easily as they can their internal cameras...

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (May 8, 2013)

there are quite a few cameras that offer this functionality available, and accessories for those that don't. Most Samsung compacts are 'connected' these days for example. CameraMator is a device that goes into your hot-shoe and does the same thing. You transfer images to the phone via WiFi and can then edit and/or post to the web and social networks. Bluetooth is way too slow for that sort of stuff.

0 upvotes
GURL
By GURL (May 8, 2013)

As they are inexpensive, several cameras (i.e. lens + sensor combinations) in the same device : why not?

1 upvote
GURL
By GURL (May 8, 2013)

BTW, my tablet already includes 2 cameras (forward and backward) ...

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (May 8, 2013)

So how many more do you want? And what for? :-)

0 upvotes
GURL
By GURL (May 8, 2013)

I would be interested at shooting 3 images (wide-angle, normal, tele) at the same time and decide which one(s) I really want afterwards!

This could look like a strange idea or (who know?) an easier way to follow than Nokia hudge sensor or a not yet seen diffraction-free mini-zoom...

1 upvote
ConanFuji
By ConanFuji (May 8, 2013)

Yet to see a phone with manual mode for photography

0 upvotes
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (May 8, 2013)

There is not much point in offering a manual mode as phones only have one aperture. But there apps that offer some control over shutter speed, check out Camera FV-5 for example.

0 upvotes
Doug Pardee
By Doug Pardee (May 8, 2013)

For most kinds of photography, there's no need. The aperture needs to be wide-open to collect enough light; there usually isn't even an adjustable aperture. You can set the ISO and the Exposure Compensation, and the camera sets the shutter speed. On Android, at least, Camera FV-5 lets you select specific slow shutter speeds for long exposures.

Fancy manual-mode photos aren't what today's mobile phone cameras are about. They're mainly about taking snapshots of life moments.

I suspect that variable focal length is much higher on most peoples' priority lists than manual controls are.

1 upvote
anthonyGR
By anthonyGR (May 8, 2013)

"4MP is probably a bit too low for many people"??? Why, because all the other phone makers tell you that you need 13-41?

I would say that for a picture taken with a cellphone, 1MP is low, 2MP is about right and 4MP is too much. Most of these shots will be viewed on a screen (so 1920x1080=2MP is enough), or will be printed 6x4 or 7x5 (and with 2MP you get 270dpi and 216dpi respectively).

I really wonder what use calls for more than 4MP on a cellphone.

Comment edited 22 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
rocklobster
By rocklobster (May 9, 2013)

Reply to anthonyGR - you are forgetting that each pixel of 1920x1080 includes the 3 primary colours so it is more like 6MP.

0 upvotes
GURL
By GURL (May 9, 2013)

http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pixel

It looks like most people aren't interested in the differences between pixels, screen subpixels, sensor photosites and Bayer filter pattern...

Believing in the numbers (the larger the better) is easier and as far as I know no phone camera test is showing the difference between 'full size' results and images resulting from a reduction using an adequate interpolation.

Another way to ask the same question is: are phone camera lenses good enough for a 12 millions pixels sensor?

Comment edited 4 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
anthonyGR
By anthonyGR (May 9, 2013)

rocklobster:
I'm assuming that the specs are in resulting pixels, not in photosites, so when they say 4MP, you get 4MP of full color, no matter how many actual photosites the phone needed to create that.

GURL:
I couldn't agree more with you. I think there is a simple test. Take a picture of something with lines and start downscaling the picture using a Lanczos, or Catrom interpolation filter until you can count less lines than in the original picture. The smallest picture where you can count the max number of lines tells your what your real resolution is.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 20
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