Robert Triggs/Android Authority
Photographic prowess sells smartphones. In fact, it may be the biggest product differentiation factor on the market today, and it has been around for many years. Trying different camera settings has produced the same number of the most powerful and fancy camera bags, but the next smartphone photography battle seems to be about image processing.
Chinese brands Vivo and Xiaomi are entering the market with in-house image signal processing (ISP) technology to enhance the pre-bundled components you will find in your phone’s system-on-chip (SoC). According to rumors, Oppo also has its own chip. Of course, Google hopes to enhance the photography function of its upcoming Pixel 6 flagship product through its custom Tensor SoC machine learning capabilities.
For several equally important reasons, we will almost certainly see the trend of more customized imaging chips in 2022.
The driving force for better imaging
Robert Triggs/Android Authority
One obvious reason to invest in custom ISP technology is to improve image quality or provide features you can’t find on competing devices. For example, Xiaomi’s Surge C1 promises to improve low-light image quality, better focus, improved auto exposure and auto white balance, fundamentally making the cornerstone of photography even better. But advanced ISPs can also be used to achieve faster and more powerful HDR and even machine learning technology-no doubt, Google has also considered this for Tensor.
Although mobile phone-grade image sensors continue to improve, smartphone cameras are ultimately still limited by the size of the image sensor they can reasonably accommodate without creating bulky camera bumps or sacrificing battery capacity. In order to beat physics, smartphones are increasingly turning to new technologies and processing techniques, such as multi-ISO, multi-exposure, single-frame progressive HDR, etc., to improve image quality. But these more powerful functions have also promoted the demand for faster, more powerful, and dedicated chips, so more and more attention is paid to the role of ISP in modern smart phones.
Custom hardware has helped Google’s Pixel surpass its weight, and others are now embarking on a similar journey.
As we mentioned before, Google is one of the first companies to emphasize the importance and capabilities of enhancing the traditional smartphone imaging pipeline. Although not a very traditional ISP, Google’s Pixel Visual Core and later Pixel Neural Core support cutting-edge imaging technology, making the weight of the smartphone exceed its weight. Now, the company has started a larger project to customize the internal workings of Pixel 6’s Tensor SoC.
It’s hard not to compare the Pixel story with other brands that are now starting their own imaging hardware journey. Similarly, Qualcomm has been talking about the imaging processing capabilities of its Snapdragon SoC for several generations.
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As smartphones continue to push the boundaries of compact camera hardware, image processing and software functions will play an increasingly important role in driving innovation. The differentiation of smartphone cameras will be as important as custom chips and high-quality image sensors and lenses-although this is not the only reason why the company has turned to internal chip development.
China wants its own silicon
It is no coincidence that Chinese brands promote customized imaging chips.China vigorously promote National Silicon Development Reduce reliance on Western intellectual property rights. The threat that the United States can cut off a company’s basic intellectual property rights has always existed, which just emphasizes the importance of China’s domestic semiconductor design and manufacturing capabilities.
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The image signal processor is one of the few key smartphone silicon components that can be moved relatively easily from outside the main SoC. External machine learning chips are another possibility, and Chinese companies are also advancing internal designs in this area. But 5G, CPU and graphics components are more dependent on Western IP. Huawei is the only Chinese mobile chip supplier with important modem IP to develop its own SoC, but even so, it relies on CPUs, GPUs, and other technologies licensed from the West—at least for now. It is also worth noting that Xiaomi has already set foot in its low-end Surge S1 SoC.
ISP development involves a healthy combination of digital computing, memory and coding circuit design. Dedicated processor design may be a useful stepping stone towards a more general design in the future. Don’t forget that manufacturers can also personally experience the needs and requirements of chip manufacturing, which is usually left to major SoC suppliers such as Apple, Huawei, Qualcomm, and Samsung. In another sense, you must build your own hardware to be seen as competing with the big players.
The custom chip is designed to show that the brand can compete with big companies such as Apple and Samsung.
This may be only a small part, but introducing professional imaging internally is another step towards silicon independence. Not to mention the use of ISP technology goes far beyond smartphone cameras. Use cases cover digital cameras, security devices and facial recognition, automobiles, etc. Essentially, anything with a camera needs an ISP, which is an ever-expanding market.
Custom ISP: The next mobile photography battlefield
The mobile trend of advanced imaging and computational photography has been around for several years, pushing the boundaries of image quality in smartphone form factors. The image signal processor is an integral part of this puzzle. It provides support for basic knowledge such as autofocus and exposure, up to advanced HDR and AI-based algorithms.
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The latest trend in custom ISP chips is differentiation. Improving image quality is the number one priority, and new hardware will undoubtedly help elevate consumer photography capabilities to new heights, as Google’s Pixel series has keenly demonstrated. On the other hand, chip development is also a key part of this differentiation. Whether it is to create excellent products or showcase these growing brands, especially Chinese brands, they can compete with chip developers from companies such as Apple and Samsung. .
Although consumers may just be familiar with this idea, customized ISPs may become a key part of smartphone photography marketing throughout 2022 and beyond.