China’s OPPO, Not Google, Will Ship The First MEMS-Based Smartphone Camera

There was a lot of speculation last week on Google‘s Nexus 5 and whether it included a MEMS (micro-electromechanical system)-based camera. Documentation indicated that the Nexus 5 camera used a Sony image sensor, specifically the IMX179.  DigitalOptics Corp., the maker of mems|cam, was then linked to the the Sony IMX179 through a simple Google search, connected to the Nexus 5 and the rumor mill took over.

The small little problem is that China’s OPPO, not Google, will most likely ship the first MEMS-based smartphone camera.  According to a DigitalOptics, OPPO just signed a high volume order for mems|cam. In a press release, DigitalOptics said,  ”There has been speculation on who would be the first to bring the significant benefits of mems|cam to the mobile imaging market. Last week, several technology news blogs reported that mems|cam was first being brought to market in another smartphone platform. Those reports were inaccurate.” Well that about says everything.

While OPPO isn’t a household name in the U.S., they are in China. OPPO competes alongside locals Xiaomi (Hugo Barra’s new home), Coolpad, Gionee, and ZTE , and ship more phones locally then global brands HTC , Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Blackberry and LG.  The China and U.S. markets are very different.  As an example, as a per cent, Apple and Samsung hold 35% less market share in China versus the U.S. So how big is OPPO? According to the South Morning China Post, OPPO executives say they will ship over 15 million units this year alone.

What is it that got reporters so excited about mems|cam? It’s the promise of Lytro-like features in a smartphone.  It’s the idea of never having an out of focus picture.  You see, mems|cam technology promises to focus the camera faster, with less power, with better image quality, with a smaller footprint, generating less heat when compared to VCMs (Voice Coil Motors), invented in the 1800′s and used by Alexander Graham Bell.  According to DigitalOptics, mems|cam:

  • 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%.

Sounds good, right?  While no one knows just how far OPPO will take the technology, we will all know in the next 3-6 months as they roll out their new phones with mems|cam.  Given this will be the first major upgrade ever to the focal mechanisms ever, this should get the industry and consumers excited.