The future of smartphones is in dual cameras

Cameras on smartphones will soon have optical zoom and better low-light images, and they'll be available this year.

Aloysius Low/CNET
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The Corephotonics Hawkeye camera module is thinner than most camera modules but offers a huge performance boost.

Aloysius Low/CNET

Forget bigger, higher resolution screens or even faster processors, because the next game changer that will get you to upgrade will be new phones equipped with dual-camera technology from Corephotonics.

Debuting two years ago, the Israeli startup is finally ready to get its tech onto upcoming phones, and you're likely to see this technology in new phones as early as the third quarter of this year. The new dual-camera system promises optical zoom with no moving parts, while also allowing for better noise reduction that's not available on current phone camera sensors.

Back in 2014 at Mobile World Congress at Barcelona, Corephotonics had told CNET that phones featuring its technology could appear in the same year, but two years have passed with nary a word. As cool as the dual-camera technology is, the delay is certainly frustrating, especially for the tech geeks who want something cool and new.

"When Corephotonics introduced dual-camera technology in 2014, its benefits became clear soon after. In 2015 the first generation development was complete; the demand was there from the start, and it has only increased since," says Eran Kali, Corephotonic's vice president of sales and licensing, when I caught up with him again in Barcelona this time around.

"Yet in 2015 the supply chain was not quite ready for dual cameras and was revamping for that. I am happy to report that today, all three components' demand, development and the supply chain maturity are in place. That goes for the camera manufacturing and also for the application processor framework."

While Corephotonics declined to confirm whether its camera technology was used in LG's new G5 and X Cam phones, CNET understands from an LG executive that the technology used in its phones was developed in-house, and doesn't seem to share the same features as those from Corephotonics -- there's no comparable optical zoom.

So what does it do, and how?

It's not the first time that the smartphone industry has tried something with dual cameras on smartphones. In the 3D-everything frenzy a few years back, phones such as the HTC Evo 3D used dual cameras to take 3D images that could be viewed back on its 3D capable display, but the tech never really took off since it felt gimmicky.

But this is a very different beast. For the very basic model, Corephotonics' tech relies on two cameras, one fixed-focus telephoto with a narrow field of view and a more normal wide-angle camera, and combining the images together with algorithms for a better picture. Corephotonics calls this combination a "computational camera", and claims it offers resolution gains, noise reduction in low light, increased dynamic range and depth analysis. Higher-end modules, such as the new Hawkeye shown above, use a different method, which we'll talk about more in a bit.

And from what I have seen, it works -- and it works amazingly. The demos shown by Corephotonics at Mobile World Congress are the same as what we saw two years ago, but clearly smoother and a lot more optimized. Low-light images feature amazing detail and significantly lower noise, something that phone makers have been trying to achieve with using larger sensors in phones.

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The quality of the zoom obtained from this shot easily beats the older digital zoom we're used to.

Aloysius Low/CNET

Corephotonics has three models currently ready for use in phones, the first being a combination of a 13-megapixel and an 8-megapixel camera that gives a maximum 3x optical zoom. The second, its slimmest model, is a combination of two 13-megapixel cameras, though one is black-and-white only, for better low-light shots. The third and final new model is a called "Hawkeye" and features two paired 13-megapixel cameras; one's normal and the other uses a proprietary technology that folds the light for 5x optical zoom. It's also capable of optical image stabilisation.

While the cameras currently work on the Qualcomm Snapdragon platform, Corephotonics says it is working to bring the tech to other chipsets, such as Samsung's Exynos and Mediatek's processors. In fact, I'm told that an Exynos solution was very much ready and could be completed any day.

Why this is a game changer

Face it, phones are struggling to excite us anymore. They have mostly the same specs, same cameras and storage size, with the only differences being superficial features on how they look and perhaps whether they're water-resistant or whether they have a fingerprint sensor. Phones need something new to stand out, and this technology easily satisfies that need.

How many times have you wished that you could get closer to the picture, or how you're too far, or just mad at how terrible the picture looks because you didn't want or couldn't turn on the flash for the shot? This technology fixes that and puts yet another nail in the coffin of the compact point-and-shoot.

And Android manufacturers aren't the only one who could benefit. There are rumors that Apple's next iPhone 7 will feature a similar technology, having snatched up a different Israeli firm that was working on improving image quality of phone cameras.

There's also a physical limit to how big a sensor you can squeeze into a phone, HTC tried it once with a 4-megapixel shooter that didn't quite work out for them, and while Samsung's new Galaxy S7 features a larger sensor, you still can't zoom in on the image without losing details without an optical zoom. That said, the low-light performance of the new sensor that Samsung is using looks impressive -- I've seen the demos.

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This comparison slide, provided by Corephotonics, shows off how its slim camera module fares against the competition.

Corephotonics

2016 will be about dual cameras

If the Apple rumors are true, we will see an iPhone 7 with optical zoom capability, and other manufacturers who aren't on the same path will have to shift gears to catch up. Forget VR, forget mobile payment -- this is where phones will be this year because its advantages are readily apparent, and avid phone photographers will have something to catch their eye once more.

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