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Science & Technology
Cellular Video

The newest idea is a cellular phone capable of showing videos and photos of the person we are calling

From Diana J. Choyce
Apr 23 - 29, 2001

Technology keeps breaking new ground as consumers clamour for more and better gadgets. Now that cellular service is reaching new levels worldwide, companies are looking for enhancements that will thrill and amaze us. The newest idea on the block is a cellular phone capable of showing videos and photos of the person we are calling. Sarnoff Corp., has just unveiled a miniature digital camera for use in mobile phones, security and auto applications. It is a low power 1.2 inch digital camera called BLINC, that allows mobile phone users to send and receive film-quality photo and video images along with their calls. Amazing! From the Sarnoff website at www.sarnoff.com, "Founded in 1942 as RCA Laboratories, the facility was renamed in honour of RCA Chairman General David Sarnoff in 1951. In 1987 the company became a subsidiary of SRI International. Today, Sarnoff is a $140 million for-profit company with a global reputation for innovation". Sarnoff developed the colour television in the 1930s and liquid crystal displays. It has helped pioneer a range of technologies used in video cameras and other image devices.

Sarnoff originally created this mini camera technology for the US government. The government contract required a camera for use in spy operations that allowed its user to carry the camera around for weeks before using it. It also needed to be able to have its exposure adjusted quickly and respond to sudden changes in light. "One day soon we will use our cell phones to take and transmit still pictures and video,'' said Nathaniel McCaffrey, the head of Sarnoff's Advanced Imaging group. MaCaffrey said the camera technology will also have wide application in the surveillance industry. Such devices could be used by automakers to create smarter airbag devices that have been mandated to be built in U.S. cars produced in 2005. Carmakers are looking to use as many as ten miniature cameras per automobile in cars built by 2006 or 2007, he added. Sarnoff recently unveiled the new technology at the Society of Photo-optical and Instrumentation Engineers Aerosense Conference in Orlando, Florida. "The technology demonstrated in BLINC can operate at low voltages and power levels, and it can capture video with full details in every frame even when scene lighting varies,'' he said.

The BLINC technology offers the most advanced dynamic range features in a camera of any size. Dynamic range is the capacity to capture all details in a scene from bright sunlight to deep shadows. Its Active Pixel Sensor technology delivers more than 100 times the dynamic range of typical cameras, Sarnoff said. BLINC turns itself on to capture images in under one-tenth of a second, far faster than the two seconds existing technology requires to set exposure and capture an image. It provides both still image and 30 frame-per-second video capture that broadcast-quality video requires. It pumps out 640 pixel by 480 pixel, 16-bit colour video, the quality of basic personal computer screens, Sarnoff said. Because the technology relies on widely used complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology, it offers inherent low-power and cost advantages over conventional charge-coupling devices, the light sensitive circuits used to display images. As improvements are made in CMOS technology, the Sarnoff camera sensor stands to benefit directly, researchers said. It can capture usable images under any lighting situation without the power demands and slow response time of the mechanical iris required by other technologies, the lab said. The technology uses about 600 milliwatts of power, or about one-fifth that of competing technologies, McCaffrey said. Sarnoff said it is also developing a proprietary "camera friendly'' compression technology that will allow either higher resolution pictures or more frames per second to delivered via the limited capacity available over wireless phones. McCaffrey said Sarnoff is in talks with a range of potential customers including U.S. and Asian makers of digital signal and mixed signal chips, two leading automotive parts suppliers and also European and Asian camera makers. Asked when products would be commercially available using the technology McCaffrey answered somewhat mysteriously that, ''There could be a product out there now that uses it.'' He declined to comment further saying that Sarnoff's customers prefer to brand the technology as their own and will announce it when they are ready to do so.

Japan's NTT DoCoMo, the world leader in advanced mobile phone systems, is even now offering a low-quality, form of video via its popular iMode service. Its iMode phones offer a 256 colour liquid crystal display that shows video content during standby, talk and mail send/receive. One can also download popular cartoon characters from the Internet for use as moving figures on the display, and also hit tunes for use as ringing patterns. It is gearing up to launch its third-generation mobile services in May that promise to deliver broadcast quality video via phones. They are also testing a new service that links iMode with vending machines. From DoCoMo's website, "DoCoMo will open a dynamic new world of possibility when it launches FOMA, the world's first 3G (third-generation) mobile communications service, in May 2001. FOMA (Freedom Of Mobile multimedia Access) aptly describes the new communications freedom of this revolutionary service. Not only will it deliver superior-quality voice communications, but FOMA will also fuel the dramatic evolution of i-mode and other web-connection services, full-motion video image transmission, music and game distribution and other high-speed, large-capacity data communications. FOMA will turn dreams into reality by pioneering new avenues for mobile multimedia communications. A world away from conventional cellular phone services, FOMA will blaze new trails to bring unprecedented convenience and possibilities into people's business and personal lives". As of March DoCoMo boasts over 20 million subscribers to its iMode service.