CES 2015: Are Mobile Devices Leapfrogging Dedicated Cameras?

Every year the technology swarm that is the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, bristles with new ideas and technology adulation.  Out of the blur of this frenetic hive, both gawkers & hawkers hope to find a solution or perhaps a new customer.   

Image from panasonic.com press release

How then to extract an analysis of meaningful offerings and those which are not?  In the vein of photographic scrutiny, how to find anything which stands out?  Which, if any, products deserve their 15 minutes of technological fame?  

Although this general purpose technology venue (CES) is not about photography, for me two announcements stand out in this 2015 CES and leave me wondering; Where is the real photographic innovation actually happening? In no particular order;

One --  Panasonic

Panasonic introduced a new camera to the North American market.  No, no, it was a mobile phone.  Oh wait, the Lumix CM1 is both. 

The CM1 was actually announced at Photokina 2014 for initial release in Germany & France.  Apparently, high interest in the device caused Panny to offer it in the UK too.  The big announcement is that this unique device will be available in the huge North American market this summer.

Why pick this announcement out from the crowd of new CES offerings, when almost every mobile phone on the planet is also a camera?  Is there something so different about this model which warrants this interest?

Really not much larger than a conventional mobile phone

Really not much larger than a conventional mobile phone

Above photo from loadthegame

Panasonic has managed to install a full 1-inch sensor into a mobile phone and has done so in a form factor which is just a little bit larger than conventional mobile phones. They describe the sensor as being '7 timers larger than in a standard camera phone', making it the largest or one of the very largest sensors mounted in a mobile phone anywhere.

A few comparative sensor sizes (find more at Wikipedia):

  • Apple iPhone 6 - 1/3 inch
  • iPhone 5 - 1/3 inch
  • Nokia Lumia 1020 - 1/1.5 inch
  • Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, Sony Xperia Z1 -1/2.3 inch 

The image quality of this device could indeed be stupendous, even more so for a mobile phone.   Additionally, Panny has placed what seems to be, some very nice glass in front of this large sensor.  This mobile phone carries a 28mm (35 mm equivalent), f2.8, Leica Elmarit lens.  

A mechanical shutter and a manual ring to adjust shutter speed, aperture, ISO & focus promise to provide much tighter control over the photographic process than what's possible with conventional mobile phones.  Of course it'll also provide Auto & Manual focus, Face detection, Smile detection, Exposure compensation, ISO control, White balance presets, Digital zoom, Geo tagging and the usual gaggle of tweak able settings...

Pic from panasonic press package

Pic from panasonic press package

In the photographic community, we've spent the last couple of years hearing loudly & proudly how great 1-inch sensors are, how they make devices with such sensors worth buying vs. those without such sensors, but this was all focused on dedicated cameras. 

A few, well-known cameras with 1-inch sensors:

  • Sony RX-100 series
  • Nikon 1-Series
  • Canon's PowerShot G7 X
  • Samsung NX Mini
  • Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 Superzoom

It was just toward the end of 2012 when a DP Review article quoted Aptina's Sandor Barna,  '...these larger [1-inch] sensors could save the compact camera by offering a leap in quality that smartphones can't compete with.'  With the easy benefit of hindsight, that comment does seem ironic. Sandor wasn't incorrect, but the market has rapidly evolved so much in the intervening 2+ years. 

No sooner have these sensors found their place in the camera market, when someone comes along and redefines what is normal. Now we see this tech trickle down a truly mobile platform where it's a comparatively huge sensor.   

Pic from panasonic press package

Pic from panasonic press package

Of all the mobile phone or camera manufacturers, Panny may just have the technical and marketing chops to make this work. After all, they bring deep hardware expertise, technology partnerships, and experience in the photographic market.  

The Verge describes it as '...it’s fast, full of useful camera software, and surprisingly manageable in size given what’s inside.'  

If this mobile camera combo is successful, we have to think ahead and ask how it might affect the market.  Oh, but wait, which one - the high-end compact camera market or the mobile phone market?  **This device has the potential to disrupt both the compact camera and mobile phone markets.**

With the large sensor, great glass and the ability to shoot both JPG and RAW, the CM1 will likely put out photos with very high IQ, especially so for the mobile arena.  Will mobile users still purchase high-end point-and-shoots such as the RX-100s?  And what about lower-end compact systems cameras (CSCs), such as the less expensive end of the m4/3 offerings?  The CM1 could eat into that market as well.

Finally, what about the impact of the CM1 on perhaps the best selling / most used camera on the planet - the iPhone in it's various incarnations?  As a dedicated and long-time iPhone user, I would consider switching to the CM1 in order to gain easily pocketable high IQ.  Currently, that's only achievable with two devices ...and two pockets.

Two --  Dell

By now, this blog has gone on and on so much about the new mobile phone/camera, that you may have forgotten about the second fascinating photographic development coming out of CES.  

Dell began selling a new tablet with a unique 3-camera configuration.  This tablet was actually introduced last September, but is now available for sale and is part of the Venue 8 7000 series.

What's so innovative about this device is that it may be the first implementation of Intel RealSense technology.  This is a photo technology which purports to create a depth map for every image.  It does this by combining sensor info from an 8-megapixel rear camera with two more at 720p.  I guess the idea is that they each shoot with slightly different focus, providing Lytro-like, focus-after capabilities. Further, the composite nature of the captures, permits different effects to (easily?) be applied to different areas of the photo.

Dell Venue 8 Tablet

Dell Venue 8 Tablet

Pic from Dell prelaunch site

Intel RealSense
According to an Intel new release, RealSense 'has the ability to detect finger level movements enabling highly accurate gesture recognition, facial features for understanding movement and emotions. It can understand foregrounds and backgrounds to allow control, enhance interactive augmented reality, simply scan items in three dimensions, and more.'

It seems the photo app has the ability to perform refocusing and filtering on images.  Sure, we've seen something similar from Lytro, but we now have such features offered by a huge mainstream hardware vendor. Presumably Dell is but the first out of the gates with this tech embedded in a device.

The real market impact of this technology is likely further out than the impact of the large sensor in a mobile phone.  Nonetheless, we have to ask, what could camera manufacturers do with technology like this?  What if a camera vendor licensed this tech - could mainstream cameras all become Lytro-like? Will algorithmic defocusing of backgrounds someday supplant glass generated bokeh?  If cameras have the ability to refocus after the initial exposure, will that convert us from photographers to snapshot artists?

- - - - -

While camera vendors continue to focus on traditional, evolutionary development of basic sensor tech and lenses to match new sensor formats, perhaps we'll see non camera vendors develop the more revolutionary photographic innovations.

We should really keep our eyes on these other manufacturers and further, on the adoption of their innovative tech by the traditional camera community.  This is a fascinating time to be part of the photographic world, where it's no longer just improved optics defining what's new, but digital controls & innovation which might bring revolution to this sometimes staid industry.