Are MEMS-based Smartphone Cameras the Next Big Thing?

By Patrick Moorhead - March 4, 2013

Last week I attended Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain, the world’s largest gathering of the mobility industry. At MWC, I focused my time researching new phones, tablets, apps, cloud services and their associated technologies. One of the most interesting technologies I saw was a MEMS-based camera by DigitalOptics Corp, which I believe could be the next big thing in smartphones.

MEMS Technology Simplified
So you’ve never heard of MEMS technology?  It’s OK, only the geeky have for the most part. MEMS stands for “microelectromechanical system” and are microscopic machines that replace the larger, bulkier, heavier and power sucking predecessors.  MEMS is the same technology that has revolutionized mobility technologies like microphones, barometers, gyroscopes, and even electronic clocks.
MEMS technologies are produced in “fabs” like semi-conductors, not like a traditional factory that bends and welds metal- these are clean rooms.  This means the products are more precise, smaller, use less power, and are more reliable. It would therefore make sense that MEMS technology would make its way into smartphone cameras, which today are based on patents that go back to the 1870′s.
Most smartphones today use a camera motor called a VCM, or “voice coil motor”, to focus images. The “V” in “voice” comes from the fact that the same kind of technology was used in the 1870′s by Alexander Graham Bell to produce voices from electricity and magnets. Digital Optics Corp “mems|cam” DigitalOptics Corp, a subsidiary of Tessera, is sampling the first MEMS-based camera which they have branded “mems|cam”.  According to DigitalOptics, versus today’s VCM technologies, mems|cam can:
  • focus images up to 7X faster than cameras in-market today.  The mems|cam weighs 10X less and has to travel 3X shorter distance.
  • use 100X less power (1mW vs. 100mW), which can improve battery life.  This makes sense as the MEMS-based actuator is microscopic and doesn’t need much power at all to operate.  I notice how much less battery I have as I am taking a bunch of pictures with my smartphone without flash, without HDR or effects and screen set to minimum brightness.
  • produce 80% less tilt, and tilt degrades corner image quality. This is driven by the higher precision of MEMS technology.  Check out the edges of some your pictures and see how blurry some of them are.
  • use 33% less footprint on a phone and as small as 5.1mm z-height.  One reason the Lumia 920 takes such nice pictures is because it uses a very large and high quality camera assembly but comes at the expense of a very thick phone.
  • produce 20% less heat, and heat can degrade focus quality.  According to DOC, a 10 degree increase in temperature degrades image quality between 5-10%.
As you can see, the benefits of micromechanical technology from MEMS can result in faster photo capture at higher image quality at lower power. LYTRO-like Capability at Full Resolution In addition to taking higher quality pictures and taking those pictures faster, mems|cam also provides smartphones post-capture focusing options.  This is similar to what a Lytro does, but at full resolution, not at chopped down resolutions or mega-pixels.  When Lytro takes a picture, it is taking one image and splitting that image into multiple depth images.  The resulting image you choose is very small and low quality. With the mems|cam, it takes multiple, full quality pictures at varying focus distances which the user can manipulate after the photo is taken.  This is really, really big, because it could eliminate most out-of-focus pictures.  It can only be done now with mems|cam because it can focus so quickly. Smartphone OEM Opportunity DigitalOptics didn’t announce they were shipping mems|cam production units yet to large end customers, nor did they announce major design wins big name brands, but they aren’t rookies in cameras.  Their technologies ship in digital-still cameras in brands like Samsung and they have already shipped their tech into 250M smartphones around the world.  Their face-beautification algorithms are being shipped inside the OPPO Ulike 2 camera in China. As the smartphone industry is maturing, phone OEMs are looking desperately for differentiators to separate themselves from the competition.  Photography and imaging are hot now as evidenced by major phone makers like Apple, Nokia, and HTC stressing photography, and technology providers Qualcomm, Intel and Nvidia stressing computational photography with their latest wares. DigitalOptics mems|cam provides the potential for some serious differentiation in smartphones and tablets, but will the big brand-names bite?  The company says they are starting in China, which could be a good strategy as it is a huge market, there are more players fighting each other, and their cycle times are faster.  I would expect we will need to wait until Shanghai Mobile Asia Expo to see the outcome.  One thing that isn’t ambiguous is that the mems|cam has the potential to disrupt the VCM and smartphone market, and that’s a good thing for consumers and the industry. Photo credits: DigitalOptics
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.