Shrinking cameras keep opening up new applications
Today, homo sapiens has become homo photographicus: In one year, people snap the unimaginable number of 1.4 trillion pictures, over 90 percent of them with the cameras on their smartphones. Now people are facing competition when it comes to photography: from doorbells to smart speakers, from cars to drones, the world of things is getting more and more eyes.
When Eastman Kodak launched the Instamatic camera in 1963 after years of intensive development work, it was a booster for the photographic revolution of the 20th century. “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest”: By 1970, Kodak had sold 50 million units of the camera, which was easier to use than anything before. In 1963, 3 billion photos were taken annually worldwide, in one year as many as in the previous 100 years. By the end of the decade, that number had more than tripled to 10 billion photos.
Today these amounts seem ridiculously modest. In any quarter of 2021 alone, market leader Samsung sold more smartphone cameras than Kodak from its Instamatic in seven years. The number of photos taken each year is now counted in trillions instead of billions: it was 1.4 trillion pictures in 2020. And more than 90 percent of them came from smartphones, only 7.3 percent from “real” cameras (and the downward trend continues). From cats and babies to cars and travel – and in the months of lockdowns, walks through woods and meadows: 300 million of these photos are uploaded to social media every day, an impressive 110 billion a year. A considerable number of these are selfies: the average millennial will take 25,000 pictures of themselves in their lifetime – from homo photographicus to homo narcissus.
Digitization and miniaturization are key to this explosion of cameras and photos. And the development towards ever smaller, ever more versatile cameras is far from over, says Steve Anderson, who heads business development in this area at AT&S Americas in the USA. “The modules will continue to shrink so much that in three to four years we will be able to install cameras in smart watches and smart glasses, for example,” says Anderson, citing examples of applications that are about to be launched on the market. Just recently Facebook and Ray Ban introduced Ray Ban Stories: Smart glasses that can shoot photos and videos and upload them to Facebook.
2020 was the year “zoom” became the verb for video conferencing. Home office and distance learning brought video conferencing in marathon formats to almost every household and forced many people to spend the whole day in front of a screen. In the future, smart glasses could become the preferred form of taking part in video conferences: Eyeglasses that also serve as a display, with an integrated camera that can detect where we are looking and thus create a virtual reality that looks as real as possible, describes Anderson. Another application from the field of distance learning: “When students take an exam test using a tablet, the tablet camera can use facial recognition to check whether the registered student and not his sister or brother are actually taking the test,” says Andersson.
A huge new area of applications for shrinking cameras is the world of things, in which not people, but devices and machines learn to “see” the world and can control their actions autonomously. The automotive sector in particular is a strong driver here: radar and lidar systems for driver assistance systems – and, in the more distant future, autonomous vehicles – use a large number of cameras to observe and analyze the traffic situation in real time. Just recently, AT&S presented their advanced technology in this field at CES 2022 (Consumer Electronics Show)
There are already cars that can park independently thanks to 360-degree cameras. “This is an advantage, especially in Europe with narrow streets and multi-story car parks: you get out before parking, then the car uses a parking space that would otherwise be too narrow. When you drive away, you let the car un-park first before you get in.” says Anderson. There are almost no limits to the imagination of how cameras can be used in the car: “There are cameras that observe the driver and can safely stop the car if they are tired. Cameras that we can use to control functions with gestures. Or side cameras so that you can see the houses on the head-up display as you drive past when you are looking for a street number. ”
Millions of other applications can already be found in doorbells, which are also an eye for residents who are not at home. “In view of the increasing number of parcels that we get delivered today, this is very practical: You can use a mobile phone app to check who is ringing and, if necessary, tell the deliverer where the parcel can be left.” Smart speakers can be equipped with a camera and display to become a conference tool. “Call Grandma,” and the family can gossip with their grandparents at the kitchen table.
For hardware and software development, this brings complex requirements that AT&S laboratories are working on. The key for this development are IC substrates (Integrated Circuit Substrates), modules that combine all components – optics, sensors, chips, circuit board – in a single component. This in turn enables the enormous amount of data to be processed and analyzed in real time in this module instead of forwarding data to a central processing unit and thus losing valuable time. “It is not enough to build in a camera. Only when this component does all the work of recording and processing can you do everything our customers imagine,” says Anderson.