Toshiba demos Lytro chip, converts phones to light-field cameras

The modules, which could be in phones next year, can accurately calculate depth and change focus points after photos are shot

Toshiba plans to add something new to the tiny cameras in smartphones - depth.

The company is developing tiny image modules that can shoot "light-field" photography, similar to the cameras sold by US startup Lytro. Production is to begin at the end of this year or shortly after, meaning that smartphones with Lytro-like cameras could hit the market next year.

Toshiba says its modules and accompanying software will let give smartphones the ability to refocus, accurately pluck out specific people or objects from crowded shots, or capture gestures such as taps in midair. Light-field images contain data that can be used to calculate the distance of objects captured, or focus photos or videos on user-selected points after they've been recorded.

Toshiba showed a test unit to IDG News Service at its research laboratory in Kawasaki, just outside of Tokyo. The cubic module measures about 8mm on each side, small enough to fit in a modern smartphone, and currently uses a traditional 8 megapixel image sensor to produce images with a resolution of 2 megapixels.

"We use much of the data not for resolution, but for determining distance," said Hideyuki Funaki, a researcher at Toshiba.

The additional processing also takes slightly longer, but he said the current version of the module can shoot video at a respectable 30 frames per second. A future version of the module will use a 13 megapixel sensor to produce light-field images with 5 or 6 megapixel resolution.

The modules use a standard CMOS image sensor and main lens, with a sheet of tens of thousands of tiny "microlenses" between the two. Each of the tiny lenses corresponds to about 20 pixels, which capture the same scene at slightly different angles, data that can then be analyzed to produce distance information or refocus.

The distance of every object captured using the camera module can be estimated accurately out to about a meter away, with precision that varies from millimeters to centimeters. This means tasks that are difficult for current cameras, like distinguishing between large objects that are far away and small objects that are near, becomes trivial, at the cost of some resolution.

"Most cameras try to distinguish objects by color, not by distance," said Funaki. "Phone camera modules already have more resolution than most users require."

In December of last year, Toshiba said it would soon begin shipping samples of 20 megapixel CMOS chips.

In demonstrations recorded by Toshiba, the new modules allowed users to easily pick individuals from a group shot on which to focus, a feature that could come in handy for pictures taken in crowded places. Another demonstration showed it separate a doll photographed in one background and place it in another.

As it moves toward production of the new modules, Toshiba is working to improve its algorithms, to attain better speed and distance accuracy as well as lessen the load on a phone's central processor.

Toshiba, the world's second-largest NAND flash maker behind Samsung, is aggressively expanding into mobile image sensors. The company is aiming for a 30 percent market share in CMOS sensors for digital cameras in the fiscal year that ends in March 2016.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags toshibamobile

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jay Alabaster

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?