What will smartphones cameras of the future look like?
1 Looking into the future of smartphone cameras
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.
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.
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 Remove, Rewind, Time 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.
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