In the fiercely contested smartphone market, photography can be a major battlefield. In addition to the insatiable desires for better batteries, durability, storage and handling, camera quality consistently ranks as an important factor in choosing a phone.
At CES 2023, Spectricitya Belgium-based startup, unveiled a newcomer to the competition: the S1 chip.
Spectricity claims the S1 is the first truly miniaturized and mass-produced spectral image sensor for mobile devices – and the company is aiming for industry dominance. Spectricity boldly predicts that the sensor will be in every smartphone within two years.
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The bullishness stems from a single focus: measuring “true color” in smartphones. According to Spectricty, this is something that even the best smartphones still can’t do.
The problem stems from flaws in their white balance software, which is used to remove unrealistic color tones. Our natural vision system does this remarkably well. When we see a white wall in sunlight or a fluorescent light bulb, our brain adjusts the color temperatures to make both scenes appear white. Smartphones try to do the same, but the results are often disappointing.
“None of these cameras can recognize true colors.
Limited by the three RGB color channels of red, green and blue, their auto white balance algorithms struggle to correct unnatural color temperatures. As a result, photos taken under incandescent light bulbs may appear more orange than under sunlight, while shaded areas may appear bluer.
“Even though there’s a lot of processing power behind these cameras, none of them can recognize true colors,” Spectricity CEO Vincent Mouret told TNW.
To solve this problem, the S1 sensor uses additional filters to analyze an object’s spectral signature. After detecting the light source in an image, the system corrects the colors accordingly.
Spectricity showed TNW the effects in a live demo. Under different lighting conditions, the photos produced by the S1 were compared to those taken by high-end smartphone cameras.
While the results from demos aren’t always replicated in reality, the colors rendered by the S1 seemed much more consistent under different lighting conditions.
“With our solution, you can have the same colors regardless of the lighting conditions,” says Spectricity Application Engineer Michael Jacobs.
The ambitions for the sensor extend beyond better photos. Since the S1 can capture the entire visible and near-infrared range at video speeds, the imager can enhance many mobile applications. Spectricity envisions using the sensor for remote cosmetics, e-commerce, ID verification, skin health analysis and even smart gardening.
An important part of these plans is the S1’s improved rendering of skin tones. Smartphone cameras are notoriously bad when capturing dark skin, which limits the inclusivity of photos. It also inhibits all apps that use skin analysis, from melanoma detection to virtual makeup.
The S1’s recognition of dark skin could broaden access to benefits.
Smartphone giants are also pouring fortunes into color fidelity, but Speccriticity says they still can’t compete with the S1 sensor. This confidence stems from a long and narrow scientific focus.
Spectricity started life as a spin-out of the Interuniversity Center for Microelectronics (IMEC), a research laboratory for nanoelectronics and digital technologies. This connection has helped the startup garner 19 issued patents and 66 active applications, as well as 13 PhDs on their team.
To commercialize the innovations, Spectricity has set up a high-volume production line at the X-FAB foundry – which is now ready for mass production.
The S1 is currently being evaluated by major smartphone manufacturers. Amid a global decline in mobile sales, Spectricity is betting that the sensor will give them an irresistible edge.