China continues to lead smartphone innovation

By Barry He / China Daily / Updated: 10:48,28-April-2021

Consumers try out Huawei's 5G-enabled smartphones at its global flagship shop in Shanghai. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

It is strange to think that just 20 years ago, I would have had to pay more than $10,000 to get the quality of camera as is integrated into my phone today. At first, camera phones were seen as a gimmick, an unfeasible and cumbersome innovation providing a poor delivery of the concept's promise. Models that boasted 1 or 2 megapixel cameras were ludicrously expensive, and provided blurry, out-of-focus images, reminiscent of early experimental Victorian long-exposure techniques.

These days, however, camera phones are a necessity. Those born in Gen Z or even before could not even fathom using anything other than their phones for casual photography, and with the advent of 5G, these snapshots of our lives are instantaneous. Our modern-day collective stream of consciousness is dotted with regular visual updates from loved ones. The next generation of smartphone cameras are more compact and potent than ever, with China leading the way in this relatively new but significant technology.

In recent years, flagship smartphones from brands such as Apple and Samsung have led to multiple cameras being installed on the rear of a handset. Whether this be for a wide-angle lens or enhanced zoom, the trend has led to an evolutionary arms race of multiple eyes growing on the back of smartphones. A Chinese research and development company called Lens Technology, providing innovations for the likes of Huawei, Samsung and the Apple Watch, recently filed a patent for the world's first octa camera model. The concept boasts eight cameras with LED flashlights installed in between, marking a significant level up from the traditional two or three lens set-up, seen in the current generation of handsets.

The amount of megapixels, providing a level of image detail, is also undergoing a meteoric rise. Just more than a year ago, Xiaomi unveiled the world's first 108 megapixel camera, providing an unparalleled level of detail for the mainstream market. Traditionally, devices that could break the 100 megapixel barrier were reserved solely for the premium professional DSLR camera market. However, since Xiaomi's Mi CC9 Pro Premium model, many other brands have followed suit offering the feature. However, many challenges arise from squeezing such giant technology into the size of a smartphone. Compressing 108 megapixels runs the risk of a phenomenon of electrical cross-activity, producing digital noise on an image. This is an issue that still plagues certain handset models, but many experts expect the next generation of handsets to address it.

Gimbal stabilization is another area where China is leading the charge. Gimbals help provide smooth photos and video by utilizing what is called an Inertial Measurement Unit or IMU. IMUs detect any sudden unnecessary movements by the person holding the camera, and use a gyroscope to mitigate them. Smartphones such as Vivo's X51 provide inbuilt gimbals, improving the camera phone experience in a new manner and making a refreshing change from the megapixel arms race, which superseded the requirements of casual consumers many years ago. It will not be long before other handset companies follow suit.

China's strength in pioneering smartphone cameras lies in the make-up of the industry. While large players such as Apple and Samsung have the resources to invent new concepts, the giant nature of their markets alongside consumer expectation means they are often wary of taking risks. Innovation, therefore, falls to quick-thinking, lesser-known Chinese brands, keen to throw wild but imaginative disruptive punches at the industry.

Barry He is a London-based columnist for China Daily.

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