Pelican shows slim phone-camera prototype

A Silicon Valley start-up has begun showing off an early model of its slim and unusual array camera for mobile phones.

Pelican Imaging believes its array camera technology will mean slimmer smartphones that still have high-resolution cameras.
Pelican Imaging believes its array camera technology will mean slimmer smartphones that still have high-resolution cameras. Pelican Imaging

In academic circles, light-field photography is nothing new. Now, though, a start-up called Pelican Imaging has unveiled a prototype of the technology geared to improve mobile-phone cameras.

Light-field photography--and the related concept of a plenoptic camera --is a complicated concept involving an array of small images rather than one large one. Essential to the process is computational image processing that can extract an actual photograph from the jumble of raw data.

And not just any image, but several images. Light-field photography captures enough data that a person can adjust focus after the shot has been taken and perform actions such as setting a shallow depth of field to blur out backgrounds or the opposite to make both the foreground and background of a landscape sharp.

Pelican, though, has a less exotic sales pitch that's probably better suited to phone makers and the casual snapshooters who tend to use phones for taking pictures: a thinner phone.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced today that it's built a prototype of its camera, which it boasts is "the industry's thinnest high-resolution camera, targeting smartphones and tablets."

In addition, the company signed up some notable figures for an advisory board. One is light-field photography pioneer and Stanford professor Marc Levoy, who also happens to be a co-designer of the book scanner used by Google Books and the person who launched Google Maps' Street View.

"Pelican's technology has the potential to upset the traditional tradeoff between the sensitivity and resolution of a camera and its thickness," Levoy said in a statement. "We have been investigating these aspects of computational photography in our laboratory at Stanford for a number of years, through the Stanford Multi-Camera Array, which is big, slow, and expensive. Pelican's solution is small, fast, and inexpensive--which makes it a very exciting technology."

The two other advisers are Shree Nayar, a professor of computer science at Columbia University who co-directs the Columbia Vision and Graphics Center and leads the Columbia Computer Vision Laboratory, and Bedabrata Pain, chief executive of consulting firm Edict and former research scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory who co-invented technology for miniature cameras for NASA.

Pelican investors include Globespan Capital Partners, Granite Ventures, InterWest Partners, and IQT, the investment arm of the CIA that seeks to accelerate technology useful to the intelligence community.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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