Reinventing The Lens

Industry Perspective

Reinventing The Lens

by Ron Leach

Innovation in the photographic industry has traditionally taken place at the high end of the market. Manufacturers typically invest in research and development to perfect new technologies that are unveiled in pro-oriented products before "filtering down" to cameras and accessories targeted at the hobbyist and the general consumer. That was certainly the case in the silver-halide era, and is still true in today's digital world, although there are increasingly exceptions to be found. One example of mass-market products leading the way is the recent trend for camera companies to introduce point-and-and-shoot digicams with higher resolution that some of the more advanced digital SLRs in their product line.

Another area in which new technologies may "filter up" to more advanced imaging equipment rather than down to mass-market products, involves some promising developments that are occurring in the design of optics and opto-mechanics for the burgeoning camera phone industry. Mobile telephones have not only created a huge demand for low-cost, low-power, miniature lenses, but have increasingly spurred an expectation of high optical performance on the part of the consumer.

This potential for a revolution in lens design was a key topic of discussion in late October at the 6Sight Future of Imaging conference held in Monterey, California. This two-day event was produced by Future Image Inc., an independent research organization specializing in imaging technology and business trends, and co-hosted by the Photo Marketing Association and the International Imaging Industry Association. Corporate sponsors included Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Sprint, Corel and WebShots (a division of CNET) among others.

Among the more promising innovations in optical design discussed at the conference were liquid lenses and specialized software-enhanced optics. Some industry visionaries predict a day in the not-too-distant future when innovative, high-performance lenses developed for camera phones could displace optics in cameras of all types. A comprehensive report by Future Image entitled "Reinventing the Lens: Software Enhanced Optics" provided further insight into how new technologies might impact focusing responsiveness, size and durability characteristics, cost of manufacturing, and the various advantages and disadvantages of various optical innovations as compared to existing technologies.

We'll revisit these emerging trends as they move from the drawing board to the manufacturing facility.