Lytro fascinated many with the first mass marketed camera that enabled the user to alter the focal point dynamically after the picture was taken. The camera won a lot of awards but also came with some downsides, too. The Lytro’s opening price point was high at $399, was packaged an unorthodox tube form factor, and the output was a very low 1.2MP. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get this kind of experience on your smartphone and at a much higher pixel rate? Believe it or not, that technology is just around the corner.One of the biggest improvements to the next generation of smartphonesyou are hearing from smartphone technology providers like Qualcomm, Intel and Nvidia is called “computational photography”. Computational photography enables many improvements to taking pictures with your smartphone. HDR (High Dynamic Range) is improved by enabling an always on, ghost-free, motion-blur-free and even a panoramic experience. DVR-like functionality is also being added where you never miss the shot because the camera is taking the picture before you actually take the picture. Face, smile, and special people detection are also being pulled from higher end digital still cameras and pulled into standard smartphones. These improvements are driven by improvements in the ISP (image signal processor), sensors, and dramatic increases in CPU, GPU and DSP performance. None of this, however enables a Lytro-like experience because of the kind of focusing mechanism used in today’s smartphones. The focusing mechanism just cannot focus the camera fast enough to pop off 3-5 pictures at different focal lengths in less than a second. All of today’s smartphone cameras use what is called a VCM, or voice coil motor to focus the picture. A VCM is a motor using magnets and electrical pulses to change the position of the lens and harkens all the way back to the days of Alexander Graham Bell. In fact, the original VCM patent goes back to the 1870’s. And you thought you were using the latest in technology. A disruptive technology called “mems|cam” was announced by DigitalOptics at this year’s Mobile World Congress and I got the chance to check out its features and functions. The most disruptive feature is its variable focus technology at high mega-pixel rates. Versus the VCM, DigitalOptics demonstrated that it could focus the lens up to 7X faster than the best smartphone cameras on the market today. This means it could take multiple pictures in rapid-fire succession at different focal lengths. Users can choose the picture they really want after the picture is taken.
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