Magazine Article


CMOS Imaging: Bringing New Experiences to Photography & Video

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Image quality is everything for digital photographers. For years, photographers have craved greater flexibility, increased speed, smaller devices, and overall better resolution—but digital camera technology innovation has not met the challenge. However, the times have changed. Today the intelligence inside the digital camera brings new experiences to photography and video, and CMOS image sensors are leading the way.

Digital cameras today are trending toward the use of new image-sensor technology called complementary metal-oxide semiconductors (CMOS), which allows the finished camera system to run longer on batteries, boosts reliability, eases miniaturization, and enables on-chip integration of various functions. CMOS technology enables the design of an entire camera system on a single chip, thus fueling the rapid adoption of cameras in cell phones.

A Gradual Evolution

Historically, charge-coupled devices (CCDs) were the image capture device used in digital cameras. In the mid-1990s, CMOS image sensors burst on the scene using active-pixel architectures and integrating key system functions like AD converters and timing generators. Since then, CMOS sensors have steadily gained ground and are now steering the industry in a new direction. CMOS sensor technology has the ability to provide features and functions beyond what CCDs and other sensor technologies are capable of providing.

Today’s consumers desire more functionality and greater quality packed into smaller digital cameras. The ability to instantly capture a moment or to shoot multiple high-quality images or high-definition video is not just a “nice to have” option; it’s becoming a key purchasing consideration.

And this market is being bolstered by various other social factors. With consumer-generated content gaining popularity on the internet—think YouTube and MySpace—higher-quality pictures and video are becoming even more desirable. In fact, high-tech market research firm In-Stat believes that by 2010, the volume of downloads/views on these sites will surpass 65 billion.

Although CMOS image-sensor development began in the late 1970s, it wasn’t until the early to mid-1990s when CMOS was explored in earnest as a competitive digital imaging solution. With CMOS technology, some companies like Micron have been able to shrink the size of the pixel at a fantastic rate, reaching 1.75u before CCDs. The optical resolutions available with CMOS sensors have improved by leaps and megapixels over the last few years. These sensors offer advantages in speed, power consumption, ease of system design, and on-chip feature sets—all of which boost ease of use, longer battery life, higher-quality images, and an overall better experience for consumers. With new improvements in design and development, CMOS image sensors offer the most advanced imaging solution for digital photography and present exciting opportunities in new markets.

Before 2006, CMOS imaging was primarily used in low-resolution, low-cost cameras. But, in the past year, advancements up to 8-megapixels have come on the scene, allowing incredible image capture rates at full resolution and stunning high-definition (HD) video capture. Eight-megapixel CMOS sensors that are capable of 60 frames per second have been designed for high-end applications, and now these capabilities are being brought to the consumer applications. In fact, 8MP image sensors used in continuous-shot mode for digital still cameras can burst more than 10 pictures a second. With its high-speed capabilities, the sensor makes possible advanced features like image stabilization. Just imagine how these capabilities bring to life a child’s first soccer goal like never before.

Expanding Markets

Also according to In-Stat, more than 70 percent of all digital cameras shipped in 2005 were cameraphones—and the vast majority of these used CMOS versus CCD image sensors. This gap is expected to continue to widen through 2010. In cameraphones, where space is at a premium and image quality is traditionally negligible, 3-, 5-, and 8-megapixel image sensors become an attractive fit. The average consumer doesn’t carry their digital camera with them everywhere, but many take their cameraphones with them and snap pictures and video while on the go. Cameraphones provide users with the flexibility to instantly record and share those unprompted, yet memorable moments.

Until recently, VGA (640x480 pixels) and 1.3-megapixel have been the dominant resolutions in cameraphones, but have not lived up to consumer expectations when pictures are printed. New innovations on the horizon will allow for better-quality photos and videos from a consumer’s mobile device. For instance, smaller 2MP (1600x1200 pixels) was introduced this year and permits users to take and print true, vibrant pictures on a 4x6 photo, and up to full 8.5x11 formats.

In addition to the growing mobile phone camera market, the video market continues to explode. CMOS image sensors are enabling the exciting possibility of having great video and still-picture capabilities in the same device. CMOS sensors have become the technology choice for high-definition video cameras. With new 5- and 8MP sensors, a digital camera can capture not only high resolution stills, but also high-definition (HD) video.

It is clear technology innovation is pushing the envelope in the digital imaging market, and this will continue in the years to come. We have really only begun to see the increase in market demands and interest in sharing photos and videos online from consumers. Retailers, in turn, will ask more from the digital camera industry in terms of the capabilities and features inside the device in order to create the best possible experience for today’s consumer.