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  (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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Not happening
By Nutzo on 4/21/2014 4:32:57 PM , Rating: 4
This is nothing more than bogus marketing.
There is alot more to photo's than taking selfies.

The best cellphone cameras are not even close in quality to a good point & shoot camera, especially when it comes to a decent zoom. A DSLR is an another huge step above the point and shoots.

The issue is sensor and lens size. If you want quality you need larger sensors and they require larger lens.

Any cellphone that had a camera that could compete with a good quality travel zoom point and shoot camera, would too big/thick to use as a phone.

RE: Not happening
By retrospooty on 4/21/2014 4:52:43 PM , Rating: 1
"The best cellphone cameras are not even close in quality to a good point & shoot camera, especially when it comes to a decent zoom. A DSLR is an another huge step above the point and shoots."

Yes, and a full size SUV is far better than a moped... Now that we have the obvious things out of the way, you don't need a DSLR camera or decent zoom to take a selfie. It's just a selfie.

Most people don't want to lug around a DSLR camera with them day to day. Maybe on vacation, or at an event where they want higher quality pics, but that is a totally different market and a totally different need.

RE: Not happening
By Nutzo on 4/21/2014 6:17:33 PM , Rating: 3
Yet he infers that in 12-18 months there will be a huge advancement in optics/quality on cellphone cameras.

The problem is that these same advances will also apply to point and shoot cameras, so the cell phone will still be far behind.

Cellphones are ok for Selfies and pictures of people standing in front of you.

Cellphones cameras are a major fail in taking picture anywhere that you need a significant zoom, have poor light, need real image stabalization (like for video), etc.

RE: Not happening
By retrospooty on 4/22/2014 8:12:18 AM , Rating: 1
"Cellphones are ok for Selfies and pictures of people standing in front of you."

Again, no-one disagrees that DSLR's are better. But this above is what we are talking about. To use my moped/SUV analogy above, it like me saying "I will use my moped for work/commute because I live close and its super cheap and easy to deal with", and you are saying "My SUV is SOOO much better than your moped - here's why". We know, but the 2 markets are separate. One is a smartphone market and one is for DSLR camera's. This article is about smartphones.

RE: Not happening
By YearOfTheDingo on 4/21/2014 6:35:20 PM , Rating: 3
Given the rapid advancement in light-field camera technology, I would be surprised if the image quality from top-end mobile phones fail to match that of today's low-end DSLR in the coming years.

RE: Not happening
By bsd228 on 4/21/2014 9:05:37 PM , Rating: 2
Given the rapid advancement in light-field camera technology,

What rapid advancement? That fugly rectangle camera that no one is buying?

It only solves the problem of missed focus. With the microscopic lenses of cell cameras (and thus gigantic depth of field), there isn't a problem with focus. The problem is everything is in focus, and your subject can't stand out.

Even today's 5S is still an instrument in frustration if I want anything beyond a green lawn on a sunny day. It may always be on me, but it gets a useful shot perhaps 50% of the time before the opportunity is gone. My real cameras...better than 90%.

RE: Not happening
By YearOfTheDingo on 4/21/2014 10:01:09 PM , Rating: 2
Simulating a shallow depth of field is one thing you can do with the depth information from the sensor array.

RE: Not happening
By Schrag4 on 4/23/2014 1:10:15 PM , Rating: 2
Are you suggesting that low-end DSLR cameras cannot also benefit from advancements in camera tech?

RE: Not happening
By NellyFromMA on 4/22/2014 11:26:02 AM , Rating: 2
A) It's just a PR opportunity to join the crowd and use the word selfie, which helps them relate to the important TWEEN sector.

B) Why and how does HTC know about the entirety of phone-captured picture contents?

RE: Not happening
By inperfectdarkness on 4/24/2014 4:28:47 AM , Rating: 2
Except that "good enough" is what defines the market. For many people, there's a certain threshold which is "good enough" and beyond that, there just isn't incentive to pay more for diminishing returns.

This is why DVD's will still continue to sell in droves--even with Blu-Ray. Why steel road bikes continue to sell even with aluminum or carbon fiber ones available. For consumers everywhere, "good enough" is all that matters. And until you can successfully convince them that it is in their better interest to upgrade, they will stick to what they have.

After all, that's why the digital-TV push took so long to implement--and ended up with the government giving people converter boxes. It's all because analog was "good enough".

I'm not disagreeing with the superior quality of DSLR--I just know that the market doesn't really care. Point & shoot cameras will be the hardest hit though--with scores of people continuing to migrate to smartphone cameras only. Still, with the gains in optical zoom and pixel count, point & shoot has started to erode DSLR marketshare too. For everyone who DOESN'T want smartphone pics, 16MP, 12x optical zoom point & shoot is a very compelling & cheaper option over DSLRs.

90 percent??
By SlickRoenick on 4/21/2014 4:28:43 PM , Rating: 3
Really, 90% are selfies? Where did this get this number?

RE: 90 percent??
By DaveLessnau on 4/21/2014 4:43:05 PM , Rating: 2
Yep. I'd like to know what orifice he pulled that number out of too. I've NEVER taken a selfie. I know that that means nothing statistically. But, what did they do, hack into the NSA data base and compare front/back camera image counts?

RE: 90 percent??
By mfenn on 4/21/2014 5:09:40 PM , Rating: 2
In related news, 83.7% of statistics are made up on the spot.

RE: 90 percent??
By hangfirew8 on 4/22/2014 11:24:01 AM , Rating: 2
Read the article: "in some markets..." In other words, Social Teens and self-absorbed Twenties.

Just another editing fail at DT, move along.

By Reclaimer77 on 4/21/2014 6:10:52 PM , Rating: 1
The last thing I think about, or want to see, when I see the word "selfie" is our Communist in Chief and his frigid sour-puss of a wife.

Selfie = hot teenage girls! Oh and Scarlett Johansson!

Obama? Wtf Jason. NOBODY wants to see that.

RE: Wtf
By sgw2n5 on 4/21/2014 10:07:18 PM , Rating: 2
What is it like? ..Living your life as a hyper-partisan retard? Seems like it would be exhausting.

RE: Wtf
By sorry dog on 4/22/2014 12:20:15 AM , Rating: 2
On the subject of sour wife... Is it just me or does Michelle look a bit pissed in that pic.... either that or she was trying to read sign language.

RE: Wtf
By Mortando on 4/22/2014 10:19:13 AM , Rating: 2
On the subject of sour wife... Is it just me or does Michelle look a bit pissed in that pic....

Well... her husband was taking a big smiley 'selfie' at a memorial service...

RE: Wtf
By Spuke on 4/22/2014 4:44:43 PM , Rating: 2
Well... her husband was taking a big smiley 'selfie' at a memorial service...
A bit inappropriate too IMO.

By p05esto on 4/21/2014 5:09:49 PM , Rating: 2
90% selfies? maybe amongst 13yr old girls. I take a lot of pictures and almost never take a selfie. Self respecting males don't take selfies to begin with, or at least very few of them.

Even the best cell phone cameras still suck compared to a decent little point and shoot with optical zoom, better flash, more features and better lenses. The video in point and hoot cameras is also a lot better.

I'd rather capture my life with a good camera, using a cell phone only in a pinch. Sometimes it's good enough, but quality is always better to have.

RE: what
By AlainD on 4/21/2014 11:53:52 PM , Rating: 2
In some markets , 90% are selfies.

I would have scoffed at the news having only experienced life in France and Japan as of late.

However, the sight of Chinese tourists in Tokyo during cherry blossoms equipped with cellphones attached at the end of a dedicated small pole and taking only selfies (us in front of Sumida-gawa, us in front of Skytower, us, us, us...) has made me wonder about various country-specific habits.

By quiksilvr on 4/21/2014 4:19:05 PM , Rating: 2
The front facing camera is only really useful for video calls. I mean another option would be to use the hinge method like Oppo.

Narcissists use cellphones?
By lightfoot on 4/22/2014 1:46:03 AM , Rating: 2
Sorry, but Apple already has all the narcissists locked up in their camp. This stat gives significant context to Apple's claim that most photos are taken with an iPhone.

Narcissist + iPhone = millions of selfies. Usually taken in the bathroom. In front of the mirror. With the iPhone clearly visible. And posted on Facebook.

Another DT title fail
By hangfirew8 on 4/22/2014 11:22:15 AM , Rating: 2
About that 90% thing, he said "in some markets".

Did you use that title to get people angry enough to read the article, or are you just incompetent?

"I modded down, down, down, and the flames went higher." -- Sven Olsen

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