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Summary:

Everywhere you look, high-powered cameras on the cheapest of smartphones are bringing about a mobile photo revolution. And while hot new photo sharing startups get all the attention, the real star of the revolution might be a little-known company with under-the-hood technology.

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From DailyBooth, which, thanks to the front facing cameras has become a quick way to share emotions and moods to Instagr.am, 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’s 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 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. Since then, it has raised $17 million in two rounds 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 the more megapixels we have on our mobile phone camera, the better our photos will be. Today, not a day goes by when some mobile phone manufacturer or the other boasts about the megapixels on the cameras crammed into its handsets. Yet, we all end up snapping pictures that are dark, blurry, somewhat discolored and, well, not very cool.

The reason for that is while the mobile cameras might have the megapixels, the overall capabilities aren’t 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. Let me explain.

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 lenses, which often leads to ungainly looking cameras on phones. And that’s not all.

Camera manufacturers are cramming more pixels onto a camera sensor without increasing the physical size of the sensor.  Thus the physical size of the pixels and the distance between pixels is going down. With a reduction in the amount of light that hits each pixel and “bleeding over” of light from one pixel to an adjacent one, picture quality is impaired. Hence, the notion that more pixels equals better pictures isn’t always true.  The obvious way to solve this problem is to use a large sensor and a large lens to capture more light, but unfortunately with this approach, you end up with a much thicker mobile phone.

Pelican has found a way to fix all those problems by using smart software and a new camera module design. Pelican solves this problem with its array camera, composed of multiple micro-cameras (about 25) which preserve the required form-factor of mobile phones. Images from the array camera can significantly benefit from the variety of data captured by the camera array, and it’s much thinner than the current generation of camera modules.

Software Is Sharp & Sexy

Pelican’s camera array 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 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 by manufacturers and phone makers, which 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 spent a lot of years in chip wilderness before finding a way to profits and superstardom. It’s a considerable challenge, but one thing Pelican has going for it 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-known authority in computational photography, is on Pelican’s technical board of advisers and 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: While it’s nice to see companies like Path and PicPlz get the attention, in reality, it’s technology innovators such as Pelican who really end up making the difference.

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  1. Camera phones of the future look to arrays and software rather than megapixels – SlashGear Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    [...] gigaom RELEVANT [...]

  2. I’ll bite. Gimme their stock index already…

    1. Ok, there is a secret about thess megapixels, which many ppl overlook. If you have high megapixels u can have digital zoom instead of optical zoom. So u wont need optical zoom in mobiles. Got it?

  3. Philippe Dewost Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    I must admit I do prefer Professor Levoy as an academic, tech advisor, and 6Sight speaker rather than an app developer (SynthCam sucks) ;-)

    1. Ouch! I have not used SynthCam and your comment makes me wonder if I should stay away.

      1. @OM

        I immediately purchased SynthCam as soon as I saw it mentioned by the 6Sight Report — http://6sightreport.com/2011/02/06/computational-photography-on-an-iphone/

        and I must admit I was disappointed. Although an interesting approach from a computational photography angle, this app should have been made available as a free lab tool, not as a paid tool which it is not.

        Just to make it very clear, I do respect Marc Levoy and like his research and speeches at 6Sight (where I was myself presenting imsense’s eye-fidelity™ DRC and HDR technology back in 2009). As such I do valuate how computational photography might bring depth of field and other features to smartphone shots as we did with imPhoto.

        But SynthCam is just sending IMHO the wrong message as it stands.

        Happy to take the conversation further privately if you’d like. Do you attend #MWC next week ?

        @pdewost

  4. Om, Loved your article.
    I am seeing lots of start-ups in this space. It would be great to see some real difference. And that is going to happen soon — I have good reasons to believe — both in hardware as well as in software space.

    1. Ramesh

      I am very interested in this space and would love to chat with you more. I hope you are keeping well and not working too much as well.

      1. Om,
        I am doing well — enjoying. Would love to catch up.
        What is the best way to connect? I am jain@ics.uci.edu.

  5. It would be nice to see some actual pictures for comparison. Could you please add them to this article.

  6. Om, this is a great article and looking forward to this technology being deployed.

    BTW I find myself buying more and more products due to recommendations by GigaOm staff. First Kinect, then Sonos and now wanting this.

  7. Couldn’t it just be that they feel they have to bust the megapixel myth because their new camera can’t produce images with a high resolution?

  8. Very informative write up, I wish al the technical & management team all the success. A great innovation,

  9. Digital Society » Blog Archive » Rethinking the smartphone camera Thursday, February 10, 2011

    [...] which directly translates to inferior image quality at any given level of light.  Gigaom mentioned a new startup in Mountain View California called Pelican Imaging aims to change all this with their [...]

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