[FoRK] Pelican Imaging's 16-lens array camera coming to smartphones next year
Stephen D. Williams
sdw at lig.net
Fri May 3 16:01:06 PDT 2013
Apologies, too enthusiastic not to post.
5/03/2013 @ 4:07PM |850 views
The Camera In Your Next Smartphone Could Have 16 Lenses, Almost Magical Powers
Pelican Imaging's array camera inside a Qualcomm reference tablet
Pelican Imaging's 16-lens array camera offers low-noise, focus-free imaging in a small and affordable package. (Image courtesy of
Under normal circumstances, the product pitch you're about to read would have to be dismissed as too good to be true. Today,
however, now that a little startup called Pelican Imaging has banked $20 million of investment from Nokia and Qualcomm QCOM +1.4%,
the outlandish claims it makes about its 16-lens "array" camera deserve to be taken seriously.
Pelican's funding success has been covered pretty heavily over the past few days, especially by Bloomberg and this writer's articles
at Engadget, but what hasn't been fully explained is why the company is such a smart investment for those who have moved quickly
enough to grab a slice.
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Let's start with value of the technology, which lies in Pelican's software at least as much as in its hardware designs-- in fact,
the company intends to specify hardware requirements for others to manufacture, rather than getting its own hands dirty.
Pelican's CEO, Chris Pickett, describes his company's invention as "fundamentally different" to anything else. Not only does it have
16 lenses, it effectively contains 16 separate cameras providing 16 streams of data, which Pelican's software interprets into a
single image. These sub-cameras share some key components, but the fact that they are isolated from each at the point of image
capture allows for some amazing photographic abilities.
First and foremost, the 4×4 grid of sub-cameras creates a 'plenoptic' system that captures an 'image' (albeit not a viewable one, at
this stage) representing many different focal planes simultaneously. Once the software has worked its magic, the user can choose
which part of an image they would like to focus on --- i.e., they can focus the image even after it has been taken.
Pelican Imaging sample image
Pelican Imaging's software will provide sharp focus on any subject you wish, or all at the same time, thanks to its plenoptic
Replacing the traditional need for focusing could make photography much easier and offer a level of creative freedom that was
previously limited to much larger contraptions, such as the Lytro camera (another plenoptic product). But this approach also has a
major benefit for manufacturers: the absence of a focus system means that Pelican's camera has no moving parts, making it "half as
thick as state-of-the-art competitors", according to Pickett, as well as bringing it into the normal realm of costs, estimated at
between $18 and $20 per module.
A second advantage to having 16 eyes, rather than one, is that you can build a highly accurate depth map of a scene, allowing the
user to edit different people or objects separately without damaging their surroundings-- or what Pickett describes as
"Photoshop-level editing, non-destructively, with your finger on a cellphone or tablet." When shooting 1080p video, the camera could
even correct for camera wobble separately at each plane of movement, offering powerful digital stabilization.
Finally, each sub-camera captures just one color --- red, green, or blue --- instead of trying to cope with all three. This reduces
"color cross-talk" interference and hence, Pickett claims, delivers better image quality in low light than any existing smartphone
Now, this is where the business angle comes into play, because all these photographic capabilities have one thing in common: they
require vast amounts of computing power. That fact alone is enough to explain why Qualcomm is a keen backer: above all, a chip maker
of that size depends on consumers seeing a genuine reason to upgrade to smartphones or tablets containing the latest and most
expensive processors. Pelican's software is designed to exploit every part of a cutting-edge Snapdragon 800 mobile chip, from the
CPU to the GPU and even the DSP, and indeed Qualcomm is already flaunting a reference tablet (shown at the top of this article) that
has a functioning Pelican camera built into it.
By now, it should also be clear why Nokia wanted to secure itself a stake in the Pelican Imaging adventure. Having manufactured the
PureView 808 with a ground-breaking 41MP camera sensor, and the Lumia 920 with sophisticated "floating lens" stabilization, the
Finnish manufacturer is banking on camera hardware to help sell its coming generations of phones. Pelican has already confirmed that
its system could work in tandem with PureView designs, yielding some "pretty exciting possibilities."
In fact, the real question is why Nokia used its investment arm --- Nokia Growth Partners (NGP)-- to claim a stake, rather than just
snapping up the entire company as it recently did with Scalado, another imaging-related startup.
Predictably, Pickett wouldn't answer this question or name any device manufacturer he's working with. He admitted that his company's
latest reference design has some weaknesses that may make OEMs cautious: namely, a low resolution, low quality lenses and
out-of-date pixels. But at the same time he dropped some strong hints that a deal has already been struck with at least one OEM, and
that a Pelican-equipped smartphone will reach the market ("on shelves and ready to buy") as early as next year.
Director and head of smart devices, Nokia Indi...
The PureView 808 proved that Nokia has a knack for doing crazy things with smartphone cameras. (Image credit: AFP/Getty Images via
For its part, Nokia provided the following statement, which at least suggests that the people in charge of building Lumia phones for
2014 have been paying close attention to NGP's new relationship with Pelican Imaging:
"NGP is fully part of the Nokia family so there is a regular discussion between our NGP team and our engineers and product
developers at any given time in a range of different areas. Together they look at some of the more interesting opportunities out
there. However, we can't comment on whether or indeed when, technologies from invested companies may feature in our products.
You'll know that the area of imaging and photography is strategically very important to Nokia so clearly keeping tabs on the new
emerging technologies out there is simply good business sense."
Whatever happens next, the "good business sense" in the Pelican Imaging investment speaks for itself --- so long as the technology
lives up to what has been claimed of it. In terms of lingering uncertainty, the fact that Nokia didn't buy Pelican outright could
simply be due to the smaller company's business model, which is more about making software for a plenoptic camera rather than
building or licensing hardware. Regardless, this newly-enriched startup has emerged as one of the most exciting things to happen in
the smartphone industry so far this year, and it is definitely one to watch.
On 5/2/13 5:09 PM, Stephen Williams wrote:
> A little redundant, but good coverage.
> *Pelican Imaging's 16-lens array camera coming to smartphones next year*
> *Pelican Imaging demos Lytro-like refocusing in an inexpensive, slim smartphone-friendly module*
> Nokia's VC arm poised to invest in camera array firm Pelican Imaging*
> *Nokia to invest in 'array' mobile cameras that use small lenses to capture big images***
> *Nokia investing in camera tech that could change phones forever*
> *Nokia to invest in array camera start-up Pelican Imaging*
> *Nokia Invests in High-Resolution Cameras to Woo Apple Buyers (1)*
> *Pelican Imaging Secures $20M In Funding From Qualcomm, Nokia Growth Partners, And Current Investors*
> *Nokia Bets on Camera Tech to Boost Phone Market Share*
> **Nokia Invests in Mobile Camera Firms in Bid To See Like a Bug*
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