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Imaging explosion requires mobile architecture rethink

Posted: 11 Mar 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Imaging  embedded devices  smartphone  augmented reality  CPU 

One of the ironies of upcoming Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is that the handset itself may seem to get overlooked, despite the start of a revolution in mobile imaging and intelligent vision processing that will forever change how handsets are perceived by users, and architected by designers.

True to MWC's promise, the lights will shine brightly on keynotes and sessions dedicated to 5G networks, e-commerce, mobile content, gaming, wearables, user security and privacy, NFC, money-making opportunities, and thousands of unique and novel Apps.

Despite the high-level dealings, a clear shout out is given to "The Explosion of Imaging," and what an explosion it is. The short hour dedicated to the topic, and its intent to cover everything from the impact of photography on device design to services as well as photo privacy issues over networks, is ambitious, to say the least. Still, it does call attention to what is a major trend that has already impacted smartphone architecture and design.

Spurring the imaging explosion is the users' requirement to take and share images and videos spontaneously, combined with a desire to have a single device for communications and imaging. The latter has led to a pull for ever-higher image quality to compete with digital SLR cameras, as well as seemingly innocuous but useful features such as digital video stabilisation, HDR and photo stitching.

More recently, however, the requirements put upon mobile and embedded devices have started to increase exponentially. The pull for even better image quality has led to dual-camera designs, enabling smartphones to understand the depth or distance of objects within the image. This was led by HTC's One M8 with Duo Camera which introduced some interesting features such as refocus using two sensors to generate depth, along with other image-enhancement functions. HTC was followed by Huawei and others, expanding those imaging capabilities into low-light shots and fast autofocus. Now there's a rumour about Apple possibly introducing a dual-camera iPhone.

The introduction of 3D imaging using two dedicated sensors and image-processing chains now opens the door to full 3D vision, advanced computational photography and visual perception, terms that are not new from a technology point of view, but are relatively new to power- and space-constrained mobile devices.

When push comes to shove in the highly competitive smartphone landscape where differentiation separates success from failure, designers have, for the most part, been up to the task of meeting next-generation device requirements by leveraging advanced process nodes. But these have slowed down the past few years. We're steady at 28 nm, with relatively few vendors having access to lower geometries. And of course, batteries continue to slowly progress with incremental capacity percentage improvements in the low single digits.

Yet the processing requirements are set to increase exponentially. Recent human-like vision technologies from IBM, Microsoft, Google and others in the fields of human vision imitation, augmented reality (AR), and holographic imaging, show clearly that some of these processing-intensive features are developing quickly and will soon be migrating to mobile and embedded systems. These will enable an exciting era of vision that shows great potential, but there are at least two major issues that need to be addressed, head on.

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