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The next mobile imaging war won’t be waged over megapixels

Posted by Nuttapon_S On February - 28 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

For the past several years, improvements in smartphone cameras have followed the “more megapixels” mantra. Samsung’s Galaxy S5 is up from 13 to 16 megapixels; Sony’s new Xperia Z2 packs a 20.7-megapixel Exmor model; and Nokia’s Lumia 1020 with PureView is a 41-megapixel monster. However, Google’s recent sensor-laden smartphone prototype, Project Tango, could herald a new direction.

Though Mountain View is focused on 3D mapping, so-called depth camera tech could dramatically improve all the pictures you take with your smartphone. By using two lenses with different focal lengths, for example, you could zoom in on subjects with quality that rivals bulky optical zooms. It could also eliminate a number of other shortcomings without adding an awkward hump like the one seen on the Lumia 1020. You could soon have much better light sensitivity, less noise and depth of field control that rivals a DSLR. The benefits are clear, but Google is not alone in its pursuit. The battle for a better smartphone camera is on, and you could be the one to reap the rewards.

PROJECT TANGO: 3D MAPPING FIRST

Though Google’s Project Tango has shone a bright light on multi-sensor technology, the hardware on its prototype handset (shown above) was actually developed by a company called Movidius. Like a mobile Kinect, it consists of a high-res camera, a low-res tracking sensor, an infrared depth scanner and a CPU. The Myriad 1 brain processes all the inputs at teraflop speeds using several hundred milliwatts of power. In a demo video from last year, Movidius showed off various applications like VR motion tracking, post-capture refocusing (à la Lytro), computational zoom and mobile 3D scanning.

For its purposes, Google has keyed in on depth scanning with Project Tango. That would enable anyone with a smartphone or wearable like Google Glass to map their indoor environment using only a smartphone. Obviously, the search giant has a strong commercial interest in that function, given how tight the Maps app has become with its search business. As such, its Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group (the part of Motorola it didn’t sell to Lenovo) created a prototype phone equipped with Movidius’ hardware and an SDK for developers. It’s hoping developers will come up with innovative mapping and location functions that could one day become Android apps.

However, one overlooked aspect in the Project Tango coverage has been the technology’s potential to vastly improve smartphone photography. Thanks to onboard sensors and enormous, imaging-specific horsepower, Movidius’ tech could sort out some of the annoying limitations of taking snaps with your phone. One demo in its technology display, for instance, shows how you could zoom into a scene without the considerable pixelation normally seen on a smartphone. In another example, selective Lytro-like focusing was used on a photo after it was taken, but with more precision thanks to depth sensors. Presumably, developers could tap into those features as well as the 3D mapping to create apps with an immediate, tangible benefit to consumers. Whether Google’s SDK will permit such development or not remains to be seen.

PELICAN IMAGING: 16 LENSES, ONE CAMERA

Qualcomm-backed Pelican Imaging takes a completely different approach to depth sensing. It’s developed an array of 16 lenses in a 4 x 4 grid, each of which captures only red, green or blue colors to produce 8-megapixel images. The process reduces noise by eliminating the cross talk between pixels produced by regular CMOS sensors. Offset lenses allow depth information to be captured passively (unlike the infrared Movidius system), enabling a variety of functions and effects. For example, Pelican can perform the same selective-focus trick as Movidius after a picture is taken. It could also bring clearer images in low light and even 3D image stabilization for smoother video and decreased motion blur. The company has also showed off more dramatic effects, like isolating a subject using depth info and placing it into another shot.

Last year, Pelican told us that its imaging tech would start to appear in smartphones sometime in 2014. It had received a huge vote of confidence (and cash) from Nokia, the smartphone maker leading the charge on camera technology with PureView. However, we met with Pelican here at MWC 2014 and it has now backtracked, saying its sensors won’t be installed in any handsets until at least 2015. It’s holding out for a deal with a major smartphone manufacturer, rather than settling for contracts with smaller OEMs. We can imagine, however, that any large company would be wary of risking a new handset on unproven technology unless it’s clearly an improvement on the status quo. Though Pelican’s sensor is clearly interesting, we’re not sure it can say that yet.

CORE PHOTONICS: REPLACING THE POINT-AND-SHOOT

Israeli company Corephotonics is another Qualcomm-backed camera sensor player. Unlike Movidius, it’s focused squarely on straight-up camera technology and sees depth sensing as mere window dressing. In fact, during MWC 2014, the company told us that its goal is nothing less than to bring smartphone cameras on par with decent-quality compact zoom models. To do that, it has taken a different tack than Movidius and Pelican by using two high-resolution cameras with different focal lengths. The prototype we saw had a pair of 13-megapixel imagers, one with a standard wide-angle lens and the other with a 3X telephoto. By comparing pixels, its software can enable zooming with optical-like quality for video and stills. The image above, for instance, compares its results with that of a 5x digital zoom. It also brings other advantages of dedicated cameras, like reduced noise, better low-light performance and shallower depth of field.

Though the module looked like it might line up with the two-camera-hole HTC M8 leak, the company denied any connection. A spokesperson did say, however, that its technology is being explored by various smartphone companies and added that there are no downsides compared to current phone cameras. Indeed, as we saw at their Mobile World Congress booth, the sensors delivered not only sharp zoomed still pictures, but smooth zoomed-in video as well, a huge improvement over current shooters. Though you could argue that Samsung’s Galaxy Camera and other optical zoom models are better, the Corephotonics’ module is tiny enough to slip into devices without substantial changes. That would eliminate the dreaded PureView hump and let makers retain the slim profiles consumers have grown accustomed to.

Another factor that Corephotonics feels confident about is power consumption. Its passive tech doesn’t draw much more power than a regular camera, and the company told us that any technology using active depth sensors, like Movidius’ module, is bound to drain a handset quicker. It also felt that its tech had an edge on Pelican’s multi-sensor array, since it supports higher resolutions (Pelican claimsits modules produce 8-megapixel images.) Corephotonics also believes that Google’s Project Tango could lead to SDKs that will allow app makers to deal with depth info — something it could capitalize on.

THE IMAGE IS EVERYTHING

As it dawns on consumers that jamming more pixels onto a small sensor doesn’t necessarily make their pictures better, camera companies are reviewing their options. Depth cameras look mighty tempting, especially with companies like Google, Qualcomm and Nokia behind them. But the biggest potential lies simply in making your pictures better. A lack of zooming capability is a serious shortcoming, as are poor low-light capabilities and grainy images. Adding megapixels or boosting sensors can help a bit, but those tweaks add unwanted bulk and expense to cameras. If those issues are put to bed, people may finally chuck their compact or point-and-shoot cameras once and for all. That’s the kind of revolution that could make or break this technology — any other benefits, like Google’s vaunted 3D mapping, are just icing on the cake.

Google unveils smartphone with 3D sensors

Posted by Rattana_S On February - 21 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

Google has unveiled a prototype smartphone with “customised hardware and software” that enables it to create 3D maps of a user’s surroundings.

The device’s sensors allow it make over 250,000 3D measurements every second and update its position in real-time.

Google said potential applications may include indoor mapping, helping the visually-impaired navigate unfamiliar indoor places unassisted and gaming.

It has offered 200 prototypes to developers keen to make apps for it.

Google said its Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) unit developed the phone as part of a project called Project Tango with help from researchers at various institutions.

“We are physical beings that live in a 3D world. Yet, our mobile devices assume that physical world ends at the boundaries of the screen,” the firm said.

“The goal of Project Tango is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion.

“We’re ready to put early prototypes into the hands of developers that can imagine the possibilities and help bring those ideas into reality,” it added.

‘Smart’ technology

Various firms, including Google, have been looking at developing niche technology.

For its part, Google has already unveiled its Google Glass – the intelligent specs due to go on sale later this year.

Earlier this year, the firm said it is also working on a “smart contact lens” that can help measure glucose levels in tears.

Also in January, it bought DeepMind, a UK firm that specialises in artificial intelligence, for £400m.

According to DeepMind’s website it builds “powerful general-purpose learning algorithms”.

Analysts say that firms have been looking at ways to help bring the advances made in technology to practical use in every day life in an attempt to attract more customers.

“The focus is not just on the hardware or the device, but on what the gadget can actually do,” Bryan Ma, associate vice president at research firm IDC told the BBC.

“It is all about taking it to the next level of usage – be it augmented reality, help with basic healthcare or even just creating better maps.”

Mr Ma added that once fully developed such gadgets could have huge commercial applications as well – which would help drive demand not only among individual consumers but also businesses and corporate users.

“There could be a lot of opportunity waiting to be exploited in this area,” he said.

Last year, Japanese firm Sony filed a patent for a “SmartWig”, with healthcare cited as one of its potential uses along with the ability to help blind people navigate roads.

It said the wig could use a combination of sensors to help collect information such as temperature, pulse and blood pressure of the wearer.

Google kicks off student Doodle contest

Posted by Rattana_S On February - 7 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

(CNN) — It gets more visitors than any art gallery and more clicks than any other single site on the Internet. Imagine getting your own drawing on Google’s homepage.

Google is giving aspiring student artists and inventors a rare chance to get their original artwork on the heavily trafficked Google.com. The company is kicking off a Doodle 4 Google contest, and any student in the United States, grades kindergarten through 12, can submit their own doodle between now and March 20.

The theme of this year’s contest is “If I Could Invent One Thing to Make the World a Better Place …” If your idea is especially brilliant, you might want to patent it before showing it off to the entire world or having it turned into a top-secret Google[x] project.

In addition to a $30,000 scholarship and a tech grant to their school, the winner will make a trip to Google headquarters and work with its Doodle team to turn their drawing into an animation. The winning entry will appear on Google.com on June 9.

Even as ads and other detritus have filled search results, Google’s search-engine homepage has stayed clean, sparse and almost always free of ads. (Google has made exceptions to push its Nexus 7, Nexus One and Motorola Droid devices.)

The classic multicolored Google logo sits on top of the search bar in the middle of the white page. But over the years, the logo itself has been altered for fun and some smart brand marketing. These artistic “doodles” direct visitors to information on topics they might normally have overlooked, from filmmaker Ingmar Bergman to writer Zora Neale Hurston.

“It’s kind of like the mission behind having a search engine that can bring you all the information in the world,” Google Doodler Sophie Diao said. (Her business card actually lists “Doodler” as her job title.) “We can help users find something or learn about things that they otherwise might not.”

The first Google Doodle was posted in 1998, when the company founders took off for Burning Man and decided to drop a stick figure into the regular logo as a sort of “Gone Fishing” sign. Over time, the company started marking the occasional holidays with decked-out logos, and the doodle took off.

Now they mark important historical occasions and bring attention to people and topics that might otherwise be overlooked, such as Simone de Beauvoir‘s 106th birthday, the 66th anniversary of the Roswell Incident and the 100th Tour de France.

The doodles are usually created by a team of 20 Google employees, including 10 artists and three engineers, at the company’s Mountain View, California, headquarters. They make about a doodle a day, though many are only for specific regions of the world, so not everyone will see them on their Google.com homepage.

You can see every doodle from around the world at Google.com/doodles.

The altered logos take different forms. Most are static illustrations, but there are also animations and games. Some of the biggest hits are elaborate interactive doodles, like the winter-themed Zamboni game, which can take months to create. Clicking on a doodle brings up search results for that topic.

In addition to hosting the winner for a day, the Doodle team will help an official group of judges sort through entries and pick the best drawings. The public will be able to chime in and vote on their favorites.

“We’re looking for doodles that kind of feel at once very personal and relatable and are also a showcase of the student’s creativity,” Diao said.

Last year’s Doodle 4 Google contest winner was 18-year-old Sabrina Brady, who created an image of a returning U.S. soldier hugging his young daughter. She has gone on to use her scholarship money to enter art school.

We’ve seen the Galaxy Note series get larger and larger as time passes, but this is the first time we’ve seen the Note actually get smaller. The Galaxy Note 3 Neo has now been officially unveiled by Samsung Poland and will come in two flavors — 3G and “LTE+,” and the latter offers connectivity on higher-speed Category 4 networks (up to 150 Mbps down/50 Mbps up). The two share a lot of similarities, but there are a couple key differences as well: As you might expect, the LTE+ model is the more specced-out of the pair and offers a hexa-core processor consisting of two 1.7GHz Cortex-A15 cores and four 1.3GHz Cortex-A7 cores. The 3G (HSPA+ 21 Mbps) version, on the other hand, will enjoy a quad-core 1.6GHz processor of unknown make.

So what’s important about the new Neos? Both versions of the Android 4.3 Jelly Bean device feature a 5.5-inch 720p Super AMOLED panel with full S Pen capability, which means you’ll be able to take advantage of Air Command, S Note, Multi-Window and other pen-related functions; in other words, it’ll be a less-expensive version of the Note 3 for those who want the functionality without the absolute top-of-the-line features. It even comes with the same leatherlike back cover as its flagship counterpart (shown below).

The 162.5g Neo is 8.6mm thick, is compatible with Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch and comes with a pretty decent array of specs: You’re looking at a 3,100mAh battery, 8MP rear camera/2MP front-facing camera, 2GB of RAM, IR, NFC, WiFi 802.11a/ac/b/g/n, 16GB internal storage and microSDXC capacity up to 64GB. Not too shabby for a “Note 3 mini” of sorts, although we’re not sure what the price is at present time. Samsung says we should expect a global rollout next month (except the US and the UK, if the company hasn’t changed its mind) in our choice of black, white or green.

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