This post is part of our Future of Everything series where we interview the leading founders and executives on the front lines of their industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.
The following is an interview we recently had with Eugene Panich, CEO of Almalence, Inc.
1. What's the history of Almalence? Where and how did you begin?
EP: We started with developing a technology that would allow taking higher quality images with DSLR cameras. No matter if it’s an entry level camera or a Hasselblad, the photographers tend to want better quality, like higher resolution for larger prints.
Then we moved into mobile, where the problem of camera quality is acute. The mobile cameras quickly started dominating the market but the quality was begging for improvement, being limited by the small size of the sensor and lens.
Now we are moving into the next big thing, VR, where picture quality is far from ideal and the picture still does not look real.
2. What specific problem does Almalence solve? Who are you solving it for?
EP: We allow to achieve the level of image and video quality never available before without changing a device to something bigger, heavier or more expensive. Generally speaking, the problem is that the picture quality is limited by physical constraints of the imaging system. In mobile it’s size and absence of optical zoom, in medical devices it’s size and cost, in VR it’s size and weight of the lens – the hardware constraints are everywhere.
Sometimes that problem is so strong that the users do not even perceive it. They can be happy with the great quality of pictures they take with their newest and greatest smartphones, but do they think about taking a video in the dark? Or shoot a distant object at high zoom level? These use cases are totally impractical and only not thinking about them at all can make someone truly happy with their smartphone camera.
3. What is your solution to their problem?
EP: The good thing about all those modern imaging devices is that they are actually computers, they have processors capable of running computational algorithms. Almalence harnesses this computational power to overcome the conventional limits of imaging hardware. By computationally combining several images taken by a small camera into one, we improve its resolution, reduce noise, increase dynamic range, provide lossless zoom. Our software produces the images that could be only taken with a camera using bigger sensor and bigger lens – altogether a bigger camera that would never fit a slim smartphone.
Going further, our software allows creating new camera hardware that has been impossible to create before, such as collapsible optical structures which require software to compensate for the quality fluctuation from increased mechanical tolerances. Our recent development, a collapsible camera system having just 3 millimeters in height and utilizing 1-inch sensor, normally found in those big cameras. (To compare – your smartphone camera normally has 1/3 inch or 1/2.4 inch sensor, collecting ten times less light). To accommodate such a big sensor, our camera module pops up when you need to take a shot and collapses into a slim structure on standby, allowing the users to take images that only a DSLR could take and still fitting in the pocket form factor of a mobile phone.
4. How big of an opportunity is this?
EP: One of the studies conducted by Samsung showed 36% of users consider the camera quality and the number one feature of the smartphone. That’s 36% of 2 billion users nowadays. The number of mobile phone users is expected to pass 5 billion mark in 2019, and, in case we see major improvements in battery life, we can expect a big part of another 32% of users who now list it as the most important feature to give top priority to the camera quality.
5. What are the top 3 technology trends you're seeing in the mobile phone camera industry?
Trend #1: Usage of dual camera modules, which is logical but does not really solve the problem. In the iPhone X the telephoto lens has about twice bigger focal length than the wide angle lens, providing an equivalent of 2x optical zoom. But what if you want to take an image at 4x zoom?
Trend #2: Using AI for improving the images. The idea is that a powerful neural network, trained on a big database of great images would either process your image to look better or help the camera to adjust shooting parameters to make the best photo of a given scene. Theoretically, the machine can get better than a human, but it’s a big question whether it will be able to start winning National Geographic contests taking pictures with smartphone cameras and how much power would such neural network consume.
Trend #3: Smartphone makers, hitting the limit of photo quality, are now looking at improving the video quality. We can see a competition among chipset makers adding dedicated processors to their high-end chipsets, capable of performing the processing at video frame rates. Almalence is at the edge of this trend with its Video SuperSensor technology, providing lossless zoom for video along with much better quality in the dark and higher dynamic range. Among the mentioned three trends, this one is where the progress will most noticeable for the end users in the near term.
6. What's the future of the mobile phone cameras?
EP: I can see three ways smartphone makers will choose (or mix them).
One way is staying more or less where it is now, assuming that the image quality has reached its maximum and considering it satisfactory. In the end of the day, mobile cameras have an absolutely dominating position in the camera market.
Another is trying to jump out of the size constraints by creating add-ons providing extra features, such as 360-degree photo and video.
And finally, those who decide to differentiate by achieving a new level of image and video quality and provide new user experience such as having a DSLR in their mobile phone will utilize innovative designs such as collapsible optics or camera arrays.