Friday, February 29, 2008

Combined MIPI/SMIA 2Gbps IP

Design & Reuse has an article about dual-mode SMIA/MIPI receiver IP, available from Israeli company VLSI Plus. While it's intended for ISP or application processor side, sensor needs a transmitter, it's an interesing read nevertheless. The article presents technical challenges and solutions in MIPI interface designs.

Refocus Features in CNET

CNET: Talking about EDoF technologies, one should mention Refocus Imaging start-up. While not really EDoF, it allows to change focus after the picture is taken. Like EDoF, it also relies on a special lens and an extensive post-processing. However, the final picture resolution is sacrificed for refocus capability. CNET article nicely explains other Refocus features.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Micron Imaging Becomes Independent on March 4

Yahoo: Micron is to launch a new independent identity for its Imaging Business on March 4, 2008. It will also unveil "cutting-edge technology and product initiatives" for DSC and mobile phones. My guess is this will be 1.4um pixel sensor generation, may be combined with EDoF.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cristel-Loic Tisse Paper on Resolution vs. Quality

Cristel-Loic Tisse from DxO put his EIC 2008 paper on-line:

C.Tisse, F.Guichard & F.Cao “Does Resolution Really Increase Image Quality”, SPIE Proc. of conference on Electronic Imaging, San Jose - US, January 2008.

The paper discusses image quality scaling with pixel size. The main idea is that small pixels designers should solve quite a few chalenges to deliver a real improvement in image quality.

Nokia Reshuffles Its IC Supplier Strategy

Digitimes: Nokia is changing its IC development strategy. According to Digitimes sources, Silicon Touch Technology Incorporated (SiTI), Fitipower Integrated Technology and Weltrend Semiconductor are three design houses that are expected to supply Nokia with ICs for camera lens zoom (?) via module makers.

Nokia Invests in Morpho

Tech-On: Morpho, a developer of software image stabilization technologies for mobile devices, received ¥165M investment from Nokia Growth Partners of Finland, a Nokia Group company.

This was the first time that Nokia Growth Partners has ever invested in a Japanese company. Morpho said this investment followed the fund it received from NTT DoCoMo Inc in October 2007.

Morpho is a venture company formed in 2004 mainly by engineers who graduated from the University of Tokyo. The University of Tokyo Edge Capital Co Ltd also invested in Morpho in September 2004.

Morpho's "PhotoSolid 2.0," a software application to prevent blurring of still images, has been adopted for mobile phones manufactured by NEC Corp, Sharp Corp and Panasonic Mobile Communications Co Ltd thus far. Morpho also handles "MovieSolid" stabilization software for video.

Kodak 1.4um Pixel Sensor Appears in Camera Phones Soon

Rochester Democrat & Chronicle: Kodak is to start shipping samples of its 1.4um pixel 5MP sensor to prospective customers this spring, with expectations of selling large volumes later in the year. It displayed a prototype of this sensor earlier this month both during a meeting with major investors in New York City and at the 3GSM Mobile World Conference, in Barcelona, Spain.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Omnivision is Expected to Bottom Out

Barron's: Jefferies & Co. analyst Adam Benjamin says Omnivision's fundamentals should bottom in the April quarter. After that, he sees improved seasonality, a mix shift to higher resolution sensors and improving gross margins.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

WLP Captures Image Sensors Market publishes WLP market report. It states that today about 35% of CMOS imagers in latest consumer cell-phone and notebook cameras are encapsulated in a WL-CSP. According to the report, it is forecast the technology could penetrate about 63% of this market as of 2012 as it will progressively widespread from CIF/VGAs to higher resolution image sensors.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Keith Fife Features in CNET

CNET: Keith Fife and his colleagues from Stanford University presented a multi-aperture image sensor on the recent ISSCC. Fife's 3MP prototype divides the pixel array into slightly overlapping 16x16-pixel patches called subarrays. Each subarray has one common microlens - thus the term multi-aperture.

The image differences from one subarray to the next can be used to extract the distance information from the image. Keith also claims other potential advantages, like improved noise filtering.

I don't think this sensor has its market yet, but it's always interesting to see fresh ideas, very different from what others are doing. This is why I like Keith Fife's papers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Thomson Offers HD Sensor

Centredaily: Thomson announced release of 9211 HD CMOS image sensor targeted to high-end industrial applications.

The Thomson 9211 features HDTV resolution 1920 x 1080 pixels, greater than 120dB dynamic range, on-chip dual 12b ADCs and 90fps speed.

McCann Imaging Site

I've bumped into an interesting site McCann Imaging with video lectures and papers on HDR imaging, low-light color processing and other ISP issues. Quite recent presentations from Electronic Imaging 2008 conference are on-line too. Many thanks to Mary and John McCann, the owners of the site!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

MIPI IP Core from Mixel

Chip Design Magazine runs a story about MIPI interface mentioning a complete mixed-signal IP core MXL-PHY-MIPI from Mixel as the first available MIPI IP that includes both the analog and digital DPHY blocks. The IP is designed in TSMC and Chartered 0.13um LP processes.

Friday, February 15, 2008

ST Licenses Dblur's EDoF, Abandons DxO's?

EETimes France: ST Micro and Israeli developer of EDoF technology Dblur have striked a collaboration agreement to develop a 3.2MP 1.75um sensor.

ST also plans to use other Dblur software lens technologies including wide apertures (low F#) to improve low light performance and low-profile lens (up to 30% less depth) for both fixed focus and AF camera modules and future wafer-scale optics and assembly technologies.

Now it's not clear what happens with a year old license of DxO Lab's EDoF (another link to EETimes Europe article). It looks like something is wrong with DxO EDoF solution, if ST has decided to switch after a year of efforts.

Yahoo reports that Dblur also announced a stand-alone EDoF chip, PA-DB3615SA. The chip is manufactured by SMIC and supports sensor resolutions up to 3.2MP. Its mass production is to start in May 2008.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Micron Adds 2MP Sensor to its 1.75um Family

Yahoo: Micron announced 1/5" 2MP SoC sensor. Nothing unusual about this new sensor, it seems that Micron is just filling the gaps in its 1.75um sensors lineup.

The new sensor fits in 6.5 x 6.5 mm camera module.

Omnivision Enters 1.75um Pixel Mass Production

Yahoo: Omnivision announces start of mass production of its 1st generation 1.75um pixel based sensor, the 3MP OV3640. This announcement comes more than a year after Micron and Samsung announced their MP start.

Omnivision also reports about multiple tier one handset makers design wins with this sensor.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Omnivision Presents 1/13" VGA Sensor

Yahoo: The new OV7690 SoC sensor uses announced yesterday 1.75um OmniPixel3-HS pixels coupled with non-linear microlens shift. The sensor fits into camera module of just 4.5 x 4.5 x 2.8mm.

The OV7690 comes in a newly developed chip scale package (CSP3) which is said to improve device reliability and reduce system height.

The OV7690 is currently available for sampling, with expected volume production in Q3 2008.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Omnivision Improves 1.75um Pixel Sensitivity

Yahoo: Omnivision announced OmniPixel3-HS architecture, which incorporates a new pixel design that doubles the sensitivity of its 1.75um OmniPixel3 architecture to 960mV/lux-second.

OmniPixel3-HS is a symmetric pixel design that eliminates color shading across the image plane. It has low stack hight and improved QE. It's claimed to have an improved low-light sensitivity and lower noise in all lighting conditions.

"Our R&D team engaged in a focused effort with technology partner TSMC to move more advanced design rules into the current 0.11-micron image technology to support this new pixel architecture," said Howard Rhodes, OmniVision's Vice President of Process Engineering. "OmniVision has systematically analyzed the performance of over 100 different pixel designs over 100 different process variations to arrive at the OmniPixel3-HS design. The result is an OmniVision proprietary image technology that doubles the sensitivity of our first generation OmniPixel3 1.75 micron pixel."

Great work, Howard and the team! I always believed in your capabilities.

Omnivision Integrates EDoF onto Sensor Chip

Yahoo: Omnivision claimed a mobile handset industry first with the introduction of the OV3642, a 1/4-inch, 3MP SoC sensor with TrueFocus embedded on-chip. As I recall, Magnachip announced DxO EDoF integration a year ago, but it's certainly first such solution for Omnivision.

The OV3642 is built with OmniVision's new OmniPixel3-HS technology which is claimed to be double the sensitivity (960mV/Lux-sec) of other manufacturers' 1/4" 3MP SOC sensors. TrueFocus keeps focus from 20cm to infinity, both stills and video. The OV3642 also has AF support so it can be used in camera designs with fixed focus, TrueFocus and AF.

The Omnivision's sensor fits in a "biggish" 8.5mm by 8.5mm socket, while most of the competitors use 8mm by 8mm packages.

The OV3642 speed is 15fps in full resolution transferred over either a two lane MIPI interface, or a traditional parallel interface. It also has JPEG compression, OTP memory and ISP functions.

The OV3642 is currently available for customer sampling with volume production is expected in Q3 2008.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

€141M "MINimage Programme"

EduBourse: The aim of the "MINimage programme", which represents overall expenditure on R&D of €141M spread over four years, is to perfect a new generation of micro-cameras for mobile phones. The programme, which is being implemented in association with Saint-Gobain, Varioptic, DxO Labs, French research bodies and small businesses, is coordinated by the ST Micro group.

France intends to grant the aid of €70 million to the MINimage programme. The EU Commission decided that the state subsidy would not have any lasting damage on rivals because it was small compared to overall research spending in the sector. Even if the project manages to create a breakthrough, ST Micro would only see market share increase by a few percentage points, the EU said.

EETimes Europe adds that CEA, the National Institute for Computer Science and Control (INRIA) and the Hubert Curien Laboratory are among the participants in the program.

Jean Monet University defines the program objectives:

"The principal innovations of the MINIMAGE program aim at the miniaturization of optics and the mechanics of focus, the increase in the definition and in the sensitivity of the detectors, and the improvement the algorithms of treatment and analysis of images, embarked in a specialized processor.

The MINIMAGE program aims to develop technological bricks very innovating, in particular: detectors with higher definitions (5 to 8 million pixels); optics with liquid lens and digital lens for a miniaturized and robust autofocus; a process to do a collective assembly of modules integrating the sensor and its optics; a heart of processor flexible and optimized for the image processing.

From Saint-Gobain's site:

"Saint-Gobain Flat Glass has joined forces with STMicroelectronics (a leading name in the semiconductors industry), two mid-sized businesses and four research centers on the MinImage project, to develop innovative microcamera processes for mobile phones. On December 21, 2006, the go-ahead came through from AII, the industrial innovation agency that will be contributing to project funding of €69.9 million over four years. On this project, Saint-Gobain is supplying complex glass micro-lenses that combine optical features such as thin-film-deposited optical diaphragms, shutters and IR filters."

Varioptic and Sunny Launch 3MP Camera Module

Sunny Optics, Zhejiang (China) and Varioptic, Lyon (France) announce the launch of a second liquid lens auto focus camera module – CCM-8312B. Sunny’s CCM-8312B uses Omnivision OV3640 3MP sensor coupled with Sunny’s optics and Varioptic’s Arctic liquid lens. At 8.5 x 8.5 x 6.7 mm, the camera module is one of the smallest 3MP AF camera modules in the market.

It's not clear whether this module is in production, samples or technology demo stage.

Micron Imaging Spin-Off Imminent

EETimes: It seems that Micron Imaging separation process is moving fast.

"Micron is in the final stages of separating the operations of its CMOS image sensor business to be a stand alone entity. While Micron did not provide further details for its image sensor business, we believe Micron is looking at a potential JV or sale in which it will own a minority stake," said Betsy Van Hees, an analyst with SG Cowen Securities. Hess attended Micron's analyst day this week.

Friday, February 08, 2008

ST's First 1.75um Pixel Product

Yahoo: ST Micro announces its first 1.75um pixel based product - a 2MP 1/5" VD6725 sensor with integrated ISP. VD6725 fits in phone camera modules smaller than 6 x 6 x 3.8 mm. Its speed is 15fps at full resolution and 30fps at VGA resolution.

The sensor is available in ST's TSV (Through Silicon Via) wafer-level package. This type of package enables the production of reflowable camera modules. These are soldered directly on the phone motherboard, which saves cost, space and time compared with the process of fixing traditional camera modules in the board socket. ST is one of the very few companies that have reflowable camera modules in production.

Engineering samples and demo-kits are available now, with the volume production scheduled for the end of June 2008. Unit pricing is in the $2 range, depending on the production period and quantities. ST's VD6725 single- chip camera sensor is available in two package options, as a COB die or in the TSV wafer-level package.

Weekly Patent Review

I found only one noteworthy idea out of 21 image sensor related applications published this week.

Samsung US20080023624 presents an idea of a drastic reduction of CRA. The proposal is to place a refractive plate, such as fresnel lens, just in front of microlens. It refracts the light in such a way that it comes almost perpendicular to the silicon surface across whole the array, edge to edge. Then the side and corner pixels get essentially same optical conditions as the center ones. No need in metal, microlens and color filter shifts. Neat. I believe fresnel lens is not the best way to implement this. Graded refractive index lens would work better here.

Micron Announced Standalone CIS Company? tells that Micron announced it "will place the CMOS imaging division in a separate company, which Micron will continue to control. About 700 Micron employees are involved in the manufacture of CMOS sensor - based mostly in San Jose, Calif.

Micron said it is evaluating whether to bring a partner into the business - to take over some of the non-technical portions of the business, like dealing with cell phone makers or purchasing the physical lenses used in cameras.

Reuters sounds less confident that a formal announcement has been made. It only writes that "The company is also in the process of spinning off its image sensor business into a separate company because it concluded it did not fit well with the rest of the company, which is focused solely on memory chips."

"We still like that business a lot," Appleton said. "With what's happening in our memory business, we can't really do justice to that part of our business in its current form."

Ultimately, whether Micron takes the imagine sensing business public or forms a partnership with another chipmaker, it will function as a foundry for the image sensor chip business.

"Right now they don't feel like it garners any sort of valuation," American Technology Research analyst Doug Freedman said of the image sensor business. "It will still have the benefit of diversifying their revenue base (as a stand-alone entity) but they can monetize it at the same time."

Idaho Statesman adds that "much of Micron's image-sensing manufacturing occurs at two plants in Italy, and most of its research, development and design takes place in San Jose, Calif., and Pasadena, Calif.

Over the last year, analysts have strongly suggested that Micron distance itself from the image-sensor business. The sensors are profitable, but sales have grown slowly and account for only about 10 percent of the company's revenue - not the one-third the company sought a few years ago.

Micron plans to spin off its division that makes sensors used in cameras and cell phones, into a separate company so Micron can focus on memory manufacturing, Chairman and CEO Steve Appleton said Thursday.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Panasonic HDR Sensor on ISSCC 2008

CNET Crave was impressed by Panasonic HDR sensor presented on ISSCC. The 177x144 pixel image sensor that takes three frames of the same scene in rapid succession.

In one example, the first exposure lasts 1.5us, the second 150us, and the third 15ms. Extra circuitry built into the sensor records the data from the multiple exposures and uses an assortment of electronic capacitors to combine it into a single image that spans a greater dynamic range.

The image can span a dynamic range of 140db at 15fps rate.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Kodak to Pursue its Patent Royalties

AP reports that Kodak is widening its effort to boost profitability by tapping its rich portfolio of imaging patents. Chief Executive Antonio Perez told analysts last week he expects Kodak to earn between $1 billion and $1.4 billion in patent-licensing royalties by 2011.

Tessera Achievements

SeekingAlpha Tessera conference call transcript has few interesting bits on EDoF technology adoption by Toshiba and more:

Kevin Vassily - Pacific Crest Securities

And then me kind of shift case it to a little bit to another licensee for the OptiML Focus Technology Toshiba, what if were to describe kind of the end product that they are producing, is this going to be their version of wafer-based fully integrated module solution or they using your OptiML Focus in conjunction with more conventional technology?

Bruce McWilliams

Yeah. This technology is a in a conventional 3 megapixel camera. The are things are changes the lens designed is changed and in the electronic logic and firmware go and so it will be a very high volume product. And it will be a First Tier OEM and it's our understanding that it will likely also be in pixel counts higher than 3 megapixel camera follow-on versions. So, we love the fact that we can enter into the market without having to wait for the infrastructure to be built out for wafer-level.

We do believe long-term, most of the mobile phone cameras will be eventually made in wafer-level technology because of size and cost reduction is possible.

Kevin Vassily - Pacific Crest Securities

Yeah. Thanks for taking some questions. Let me start with the Nemotek we want you to get share a little bit more about these guys, who they are, who they are planning to work with or if they are already working with people, why a mobile solution company, your mobile products company were chose to work with them versus the other traditional or more established module makers, you maybe announcing around the licensee because you feel there is a -- brings the markets that others aren't bringing as far as your technologies?

Bruce McWilliams

I will take that question. So maybe most people probably don't know in Morocco there are over 4,000 people in chip assembly. There are some large plants there. I'm bullish about the area, we have actually been training their engineers and we found them to be more skilled than similar ones we've had from China. We like the environment there because people are very stable in their jobs and low wage inflation and it's competitive with places like India and China and cost.

We also like the management. (Inaudible) was the people came over from STMicroelectronics, where he was the Chairman of ST Morocco and that's plan with over 4,000 of people in very state-of-the-art plan. So, we are excited about it. We like the fact that they are going to be totally vertically integrated having all the technology. So, wafer and parts out. So, we have a very strong groups is providing the investment for the company.

Now, what we do have, we believe some additional big players that will come on Board and they were optimistic. You will see some other mainstream players in the first half of the year.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Kodak Catching-Up in Pixel Race

Yahoo: Kodak announced its 1.4um pixel sensor generation. KAC-05020 is claimed to be the world’s first 1.4 micron, 5MP device. The sensor uses two new technologies:

  1. High sensitivity color filter pattern which adds panchromatic, or clear, pixels to the RGB pixels already on the sensor. I believe this CFA idea was announce in June.
  2. N-type substrate, so that holes are detected instead of electrons. Probably Kodak is going to discuss this technology in a few days on ISSCC 2008.
    Correction: The substrate is still P-type, but the photodiode is located inside deep N-well, thanks to Albert T. for the info from ISSCC.
The sensitivity is said to be "up to ISO 3200". The sensor supports 720p video at 30 fps.

The KAC-05020 will be demonstrated by Kodak at the GSMA Mobile World Congress held Feb 11 14 in Barcelona, Spain. Samples of the KAC-05020 are scheduled to be available in Q2 2008.

Kodak was late with its 2.2um pixels. So it probably decided to forgo 1.75um pixel generation and jump directly to 1.4um. Micron, Samsung and ST Micro already presented 1.4um sensors, so Kodak plays a catch-up game here.

Update Feb. 5: AP reports that the new sensor will be sold for around $5 each in quantities of 1 million or more.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Omnivision's Automotive Solutions

EETimes Asia: In a rare appearence in the press Omnivision marketing presents an article on automotive solutions. It concentrates on NIR and HDR capabilities and their usefulness.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Tessera Buys FotoNation

Yahoo: Tessera acquires FotoNation, a provider of embedded imaging solutions for DSC and camera-phones. Tessera will pay $29M in net cash with up to $10M of additional consideration, contingent upon certain milestones over one year.

FotoNation is a privately-owned, 80-person company based in Burlingame,CA. It develops solutions for red-eye correction, face tracking, smile and blink detection, as well as other solutions for enhancing digital image quality. FotoNation’s technology is claimed to be embedded in more than two out of three digital still cameras sold today.