(Source: Getty Images)
HTC says that when the market calls for it, Ultrapixel will be ready to stretch into new niches like 4K, too

Symon Whitehorn is in charge of camera design at HTC Corp. (TPE:2498).  The camera market is currently a hotbed of competition and HTC is right in the thick of things.

I. Monolithic Sensors are Cheap and Effective Says HTC

On the one side you have companies like Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) and Sony Corp. (TYO:6758) which are going for more intricate, higher pixel count sensor designs in an effort to solve widespread problems holding back the quality of mobile image taking.  On the other side you have  HTC which is going a very different route, returning to a more refined version of monolithic sensors via its Ultrapixel designs.

In a recent interview with the blog of UK telecom Vodafone plc (LON:VOD), Mr. Whitehorn suggested without explicitly naming his rival that Sony's Exmor 4K (20.7 megapixel) mobile sensors -- found in the Xperia Z2 -- aren't really ready for prime time.  He also implied that Samsung's strategy -- building bigger, more complesx pixels with Isocell technology (found in the Galaxy S5) to produce an image comparable to Ultrapixel post-downscaling is ineffective from a cost perspective.

HTC One M8
The second-generation HTC One (M8) (2014)

He states:

We could be 4K ready now.  But we’re waiting until 4K can really fit into people’s lives, and to make sure that that decision makes sense.

If you look at 4K quality, it really is only about 8-megapixels. That’s a pretty good level to hold at, because over and above that we’re not sure what benefit you’d be getting. That kind of ballpark is where we’ll be very happy to be in the future, as long as we can maintain the large pixel model.

In other words, HTC didn't think the majority of customers had the means to fully consume and experience 4K content yet, so it made no sense to charge customers more for the feature.

II. Death of the SLR?

In very general terms he talks about what would be needed for smartphones with digital zoom to replace digital single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras for most commercial and recreational uses.  He comments:

There’s a boundary that everyone wants us to crack.  As smartphones have become people’s primary camera, we expect more of them. That’s why we’ve put so much investment into the camera – because smartphone cameras take the majority of our images now. We already outperform a lot of compact point and shoot cameras, but we want to approach the performance of regular cameras. Every generation of our cameras seems to close that gap.

What will happen is that we’ll take over more and more of those daily roles, and make it harder to justify taking out a big camera. That’s already happened with the compact camera market. I think we’re looking at about 18 months to two years until that lens barrier begins breaking down and it becomes much harder to justify buying a dedicated camera outside of specialist or nostalgia reasons.

To really reach that level, smartphones will need to boast one big feature that fully-fledged cameras have as standard: optical zooming. Some manufacturers have toyed with implementing zooming lenses into a smartphone before, but the tech needs to be refined.

Optical zooming in a smartphone is not too far off at all for HTC. I can’t give too much away, but within 12-18 months we’ll see huge advances in phone optics. That’s why we don’t necessarily believe in doing a high-resolution, photo enlarging solution.

Currently, if you want to make a really good job of taking a photo that you blow up wall-size, use a real camera.  Everyone wants optical zooming, and that’s on the horizon. We’re trying to match the performance of dedicated cameras where one piece of glass inside it costs £3000 ($5,000 USD) alone. We’re never going to match that in the short term but we are getting towards those effects.

Two years ago I would have said that phones will never replace DSLRs. Now I’m not so sure. I think there’ll always be a role for a dedicated camera, like for sports etc., but I think you’ll see the gap closing. Those cameras will become more specialised out of necessity – they can’t match the brain power that we can put into a phone.

HTC is keen on post-processing, a route that it used to cost-save on the HTC One M8 by dropping the optical image stabilization of last year's model.  The result was imperfect, but perhaps better than one would expect, as HTC showed off its strides in advanced image processing.

Looking ahead, when going to 4K video or trying to beat an DSLR, smartphones will likely need dedicated optical image stabilization (OIS). However, HTC's expertise won't go to waste as there will likely be an equally hearty matching dose of postprocessing work.  We may also see more phones move adopt mechanical shutters à la last year's market-leading Lumia 1020 from Nokia Oyj. (HEX:NOK1V).

Oppo Find 7
Oppo Electronics' Super Zoom

To get an idea of what HTC is talking about with digital zoom check out Oppo Electronics' (a Chinese OEM) Find 7 smartphone. It features not only one of the first 2K displays (2560x1440 pixels) on the market, but also a "Super Zoom" technology that uses 10 image captures to produce what Oppo claims is the equivalent of a 50 megapixel image.

III. HTC Wants to "Own the Selfie Market"

Mr. Whitehorn was also quick to brag about HTC's selfie prowess.  In many markets, he explains the "selfie" -- a picture of one self taken with the front-face camera -- accounts for 90 percent or more of smartphone photos.  And the HTC One features a 5 megapixel front-face camera, where as Samsung's Galaxy S5 is stuck with a weaker 2.1 megapixel selfie-shooter.

Barack Obama selfie
U.S. President Barack Obama and a couple of his prime minister pals show off how to take a selfie at Nelson Mandela's funeral. [Image Source: Getty Images]

Comments the imaging chief:

HTC wants to own the selfie market.  You’ll see a lot more investment in that area. In some markets 90% of pictures taken are selfies.

HTC wants to own the selfie market.  We’re not matching the rear camera on the front side, but the front camera is tuned to help you give the best selfies. It’s no longer the afterthought camera that it’s been for so long.

I’d never want to just put the same camera on each side.  I’d rather optimise each camera for their roles, and treat them with an equal intellectual process. Selfies are a very different imaging environment. The nice thing there is that we always know what the range of someone’s arm is, so we can tune the camera for that setup by using things like an ultra-wide lens and digital correction.

Currently, HTC's front-facing camera uses a more traditional smaller pixel design, but as Mr. Whitehorn's comment alludes to, you might see Ultrapixel cming to a next generation HTC One camera alongside the return of OIS to the rear camera.

Source: Vodafone [blog]

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