Samsung and Canon develop world-first camera sensors, but how exciting are they?

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Computational photography may be today’s biggest camera buzzword, but next year could deliver some exciting new sensor technology — Samsung and Canon announced new chips that are “like the human eye,” respectively, and shoot color images in the dark. are able to do.

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As you might expect, Samsung’s new sensor, apparently co-developed with Chinese manufacturer Tecno, is aimed at smartphones. According to TechTimes, the Samsung ISOCELL GWB sensor has a 64MP resolution and more importantly, it uses an unusual RGBW (red, green, blue and white) color filter array, which Samsung claims is the only one so far. Closest to human vision.

what does this mean? While most camera sensors use RGB (red, green, blue) sub-pixels to reproduce the colors in your photos, the inclusion of the white sub-pixel has markedly reduced color accuracy and low-light performance. improvement occurs. The reason for this is that, in theory, those ‘white’ sub-pixels (which are actually clear) take in all light, rather than the RGB spectrum, to improve the overall sensitivity of the sensor.

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According to TechTimes, Samsung claimed in a webinar about this new sensor that the combination of improved sensitivity, color accuracy and 64MP resolution will enable it to take snaps that are closer to what the human eye can see.

Of course, this particular claim is highly subjective, and Samsung isn’t even the first manufacturer to dabble with RGBW filter arrays. Back in 2015, the Huawei P8 came with a 13MP RGBW sensor (developed by Sony) and we were impressed with the results. More recently, the Chinese company made a RYYB sensor (Red, Yellow, Yellow, Blue) for its Huawei P30 Pro.

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Sadly, it is unlikely that we will see Samsung’s new ISOCELL GWB sensor in the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S22 series. Latest rumours, from a very reliable leaker @fronttron, suggesting that the S22 and S22 Plus models will feature 50MP main cameras, ruling out the technology of this sensor, at least for Samsung’s next flagship phone.

Canon’s new night-vision sensor is arguably more exciting and innovative, which Nikkei says it plans to mass-produce in 2022.

The sensor’s so-called SPAD technology (Single Photon Avalanche Diode) allows it to take high-quality color images in the dark, making it ideal for security cameras, augmented reality (AR) and driverless cars. The sensor’s inclusion of the global shutter (which reads the entire sensor at once instead of line-by-line) means it could break new ground in high-speed video capture as well.

Diagram showing the difference between CMOS camera sensor and SPAD sensor.

Most camera sensors today (including Samsung’s newer ones) have CMOS designs, but SPAD sensors work in a fundamentally different way. As Canon explained, the pixels on a CMOS sensor simply measure the amount of light that reaches each pixel within a certain amount of time, and then converts it into electrons.

Instead, SPAD sensors measure each individual light particle (or photon) that reaches the pixel, and turn it into an ‘avalanche’ of electrons. This means the sensor has greater sensitivity, collects less electronic noise, and also captures more precise information per photon.

But this isn’t Canon’s recent success. While SPAD technology has been around for years, it has not been possible to make such a sensor with a high megapixel count until now. Back in June 2020, Canon developed the first 1MP SPAD sensor, and now, according to Nikkei, it has a 3.2MP version that is ready for mass production next year.

So what does this mean for cameras? Initially, the technology is expected to be used in security cameras (replacing infrared night vision) by 2023. Canon also plans to combine its SPAD sensor with time-of-flight (ToF) technology for three-dimensional distance measurement, which makes it ideal. Use in driverless cars. But we may also see SPAD sensors incorporated into professional, ultra high-speed video cameras in the next few years.

Analysis: A bigger deal for next-generation cameras than phones

The near-simultaneous announcement of new sensors from Samsung and Canon shows that the camera hardware is not fully developed. But on paper, there’s no doubt that Canon is potentially more revolutionary, if even more distant.

The phone camera revolution of the past few years, which has turned them into unprecedented point-and-shoot powerhouses, has been largely driven by a combination of software and silicon rather than sensors. And despite Samsung’s claims of its new “Human i-Like” ISOCELL GWB chip, it will likely remain so.

While some hardware breakthroughs are certainly still possible, particularly in areas such as liquid lenses and metals, Samsung’s sensor is still fundamentally based on the CMOS technology seen in most cameras today. Changing the color filter array can affect the performance of the phone’s camera, as we have seen on Huawei phones, especially in low light. But these days that is far less important than what is possible with the multi-frame processing of computational photography.

The really exciting advances for most people rather than pro photographers lie less in concepts like ‘accuracy’ and ‘sharpness’ than in creative areas, as we recently saw with the Google Pixel 6’s AI camera tricks. Being able to erase unwanted background objects or recreate panning effects is more fun than just a slight gain in color accuracy.

But fundamentally changing the way camera sensors work, as Canon’s new SPAD sensor does, is something that could unlock new capabilities that go well beyond computational photography, which is offered by today’s CMOS sensors. Depends on the signal produced.

This can be seen within the confines of ‘night modes’, but the SPAD image sensor can clearly capture high-detail images using only one-tenth of the brightness required by existing sensors. The combination of this night vision technology with depth-sensing 3D cameras means it will initially be aimed at security cameras and driverless cars, but has exciting professional imaging applications for it as well.

The sensor’s global shutter means it’s capable of shooting at an incredible 24,000fps (at 1-bit output), which means some exciting next-gen slo-mo possibilities. The technology is also capable of capturing images with a much greater dynamic range than conventional cameras. But for now, Canon’s ambitions seem decidedly more industrial, with the main aim being to have security cameras and better ‘eyes’ for driverless cars thanks to better real-time mapping skills.

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