What will smartphones cameras of the future look like?
2 More: A different kind of device
The other component that desperately needs to be updated is the glass itself. Smartphones are currently stuck with fixed lenses, and relegated to digital zoom if you want to blow up the magnification at all. While smart cameras straddle the line, packing both zoom and data connections, we still have yet to see optical zoom on smartphones in any meaningful way.
But if you think about the current trend for larger smartphones (or even slightly bizarre phablets), you can imagine an opportunity to sneak a small zoom lens in there. Think about the size of Sony’s line of TX cameras (and the now defunct T line), both of which feature a very small lens, tucked away in the corner of the body of a camera, but still able to use an optical zoom. Why wouldn’t that work on a smartphone? There are also rumors that Huawei and LG are both working on optical zooms for upcoming handsets, so you can easily imagine them adopting a small zoom lens like that.
Sony and Samsung should both be prime candidates for pushing the boundaries when it comes to smartphone cameras, as both companies are successful manufacturers of both types of device. We have heard a rumor that Sony will be bringing the Cyber-shotdesignation to a smartphone, which implies a greater attention to photography within the mobile space.
Nokia recently announced it was helping fund Pelican Imaging’s 16-lens plenoptic camera system, which should hit smartphones in 2014. This would have each lens only attuned to one color, which is meant to reduce noise levels. It should also record depth information, and allow for focusing after you’ve already snapped the shot (like a Lytro). If the images actually turn out any good remains to be seen.
Of course, there’s nothing to say that a future smartphone will even be comprised of the same materials as the one you’re used to. We’ve been hearing a lot of talk about the possibilities of a wraparound display, but it seems like that’s a long way off. Likewise, there’s talk that the next generation of smartphone displays might be comprised of Sapphire rather than Gorilla Glass and its ilk, making for an even stronger scratchproof screen. In general ruggedness appears to be a unique selling point that has been identified by manufacturers for future models. The Sony Xperia Z is the first water- and dustproof high-end cellphone (that doesn't look like a device you'd use in a war zone) and there are rumors about a new line of durable Google/Motorola phones.
Displays are advancing in some rather wonderful and bizarre ways, which might totally change the way we look at, and use a smartphone. While some might already have projectors built in, and mediocre 3D displays, there are hints of a new 3D projected system. Able to be projected onto a millimeter thick piece of glass, it would be a radically different type of display.
While these sort of LCDs might not yet be widespread, one company is already pitching a transparent smartphone — which could potentially make composing your next shot even easier by employing a larger viewfinder. Even more crazy is the fact that basic contact lens displays are due to land next year. It’s not quite up to the point of replacing a smartphone screen, but give it 5-10 years and it might.
Future scenario #4: A different kind of device
Who’s to say that we’ll be using a smartphone as we know it in the future? While the first round of smartwatches haven’t been particularly impressive, they hint at a future where your phone is controlled — and may one day migrate to — your wrist. You can already use them to trigger your camera from a distance, and it’s not hard to imagine a time when they can do a lot more. There are also rumors that Samsung, Microsoft and Apple are working on their own watches, and who knows what photography tools those will come packed with.
Perhaps the most radical change on the horizon is one that’s coming at us in the surprisingly near future. Namely, Google Glass. It’s bewildering to imagine, but a select group of beta-testers, so-called "Glass Explorers" are already sporting the high-tech headpieces and are using them to record both stills and video. It might take a while for a set of Google Glass to be seen as less obnoxious than a Bluetooth headset, but in five years? Or 10? Maybe smartphone photography will be a thing of the past, replaced by constantly worn devices.
There’s no avoiding the fact that smartphones have significantly changed the landscape of photography. You can’t go a week without hearing about an Instagram on the front page of a newspaper, or someone shooting a wedding with an iPhone. Tragic events and newsworthy happenings can now be disseminated at speeds faster than traditional media outlets can keep up with, as we all saw in the rush of images that came through Twitter and Instagram after the Boston Marathon bombings.
But will smartphones maintain their position as the affordable, low-end camera of choice for many people? Could a different seismic change in the world of photography emerge in few years? The fact that we still mock people for wearing Bluetooth headsets makes me think that the wearable camera revolution might be a long time coming, despite the wishes of people like Memoto. What’s far more likely is that we’re at a point similar to when digital point-and-shoot cameras first started becoming mainstream in the mid-00s — where solid, incremental updates will come along with some regularity, and slowly but surely increase the image quality of your smartphone.
At the same time, smartphone users in general are itching for new and exciting things. New sizes and form factors are constantly being played with, and for manufacturers, the camera isn’t always at the top of the priority list. Have you ever seen someone shooting a tourist spot with their iPad? It’s not a pretty sight. With users demanding larger screens and thinner bodies, making sufficient room for a big sensor and a high quality lens could be seen as a low priority.
And if that does lead to a stagnation in image quality for the smartphone, maybe something completely different could sweep in and pick up bored users -- doing to smartphone photography what it did to point-and-shoot cameras. But who knows what form it’ll take?
Tim Barribeau is a freelance science and technology writer based in San Francisco. He's been taking photographs since he got an Olympus OM-10 in High School. You can follow him on Twitter (@tbarribeau) or through Google+, and occasionally see him lugging a Mamiya RB67 through Golden Gate Park."
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