Cloud cameras, infinite focus and auto-everything: We forecast the future of imaging

Forget telephoto zooms for your eyeballs and Web-connected contact lenses, cameras of the future will be much easier to operate and almost fully automated.

Forget telephoto zooms for your eyeballs and Web-connected contact lenses, the biggest change in cameras is coming about from frequent daily use, rather than just parties and holidays. Cameras of the future will of course be smaller, sharper and smarter, but they'll also be easier to use -- with automatic shooting, editing and uploading so you never have to see a DSC003494 filename or fiddle with hue and saturation ever again.

Sorry to keep bashing on about that third dimension, but talking about the future of cameras without mentioning 3D is like discussing New Zealand without singing the praises of hobbits, sheep or Flight of the Conchords.

Fujifilm's latest 3D camera (the W3 , out now) is a little underwhelming, but the basics are there: twin CCDs, decent stereoscopic video and an autostereoscopic (glasses-free) screen for in-camera 3D viewing . The years ahead will see better autostereo display technologies that don't suffer weird black banding or have lenses that are perfectly positioned to capture an image of your fingers.

Having two lenses on one camera means more than just 3D -- it will give better 2D shots, too. With two separate imaging pipelines, future cams will offer high-dynamic-range photography (where shadows and highlights are perfectly exposed) by combining the two images into a single shot. You will also be able to shoot two 2D photos simultaneously with different settings --telephoto and wide angle, for instance, or different scene modes and sensitivities.

High-definition 3D films are a given, but don't hold your breath for glasses-free tech with the resolution to really impress. Nick Holliman, senior lecturer in engineering and computing sciences at Durham University, says, "For 3D filming, you have to have ten cameras or some system for interpolating images for multiple views. That will probably be solved in the next 10 years or so but it's not there yet."

Likely release date: Headache and glasses-free autostereo -- 2011.

Remember how digital cameras used to come with built-in memory (usually just a miserable few megabytes)? Those days could soon be coming around again, thanks in part to our natural laziness. With a cheap 4GB or 8GB card in a camera, it's all too easy to end up with hundreds -- even thousands -- of images you've never reviewed or downloaded. One careless moment in a pub or on a boat and a year of memories can disappear in a flash and/or splash.

Tomorrow's cameras will learn from gadgets like Eye-Fi , the SD card with 802.11n wireless that automatically uploads photos to a PC in your home network, or to file-sharing services at thousands of hotspots. Wi-Fi is fine, but picture 3G (and soon 4G) cameras that upload high-res snaps and high-def movies the second you shoot them, and let you enjoy your entire photo library online, is where it's at.

Overnight, you will only need a trickle of memory in your camera for when you're out in the wilderness or cruising the high seas. A gigabyte should be more than enough, and that's almost a matter of pennies at today's prices. At which point, Secure Digital will fade into history alongside CompactFlash, SmartMedia, PCMCIA and "Happy Millennium!" cards.

Likely release date: First 3G cloud camera -- 2012.

Have you noticed how the most popular photo apps for the iPhone and Android are all about being retro? Hipstamatic and Instagram celebrate the cameras of yesteryear, adding weird colour effects, comforting sepia tones and analogue distortion to today's squeaky clean digital images.

By simulating an age when photography was rare, expensive and dominated by professionals, our own mass-produced, disposable efforts acquire a halo of value. And there's no reason to think this trend will stop in its tracks.

The next development will be apps that turn your fancy smart phone into a box camera, complete with upside-down focusing plate and manual shutter. Then expect apps that return to the very earliest days of photography. Huge exposure times will turn busy streets into ghost towns, where people blur away completely and only stationary buildings remain.

Of course, these apps will need physical accessories. You'll slip your phone into a shoebox, then add some bellows, and lastly duck beneath a velvet curtain to frame your masterpiece. One word of caution: magnesium flash powder can get very hot indeed.

Likely release date: The full 1894 set-up -- early 2012.

Tracking focus, predictive focus, face priority, wide-area focus -- the fact there are so many smart systems out there to keep pictures sharp shows just how fuzzy many of our photos still are. Except at the University of Toronto.

Researchers there have developed what they call the Omni-Focus Video Camera. It captures HD video in which everything pictured, from macro close-ups to the distant horizon, is in perfect focus. The technology sounds pretty daunting. Multiple cameras, each with its focus fixed to a certain distance, are squeezed into a single housing.

Another camera maps distance information for every pixel in the scene in real time. Software then uses the distance information to select individual pixels from all the feeds and generate the final 'omni-focused' image.

Professor Keigo Iizuka of the university says, "In a concert, conventional video cameras are unable to focus simultaneously on both the singer and band members in the background. The Omni-Focus camera removes this limitation to deliver higher-quality video images and improved quality of experience to potentially millions of TV viewers."

So there you have it. Thousands of brain-hours and millions of dollars so that every member of Take That can finally be razor-sharp at the same time. Optically speaking, at least.

Likely release date: Infinite focus camera -- 2013.

Try to burn rubber in a modern luxury car. Traction control, power management and drive-by-wire technology means it often can't be done. And the same will soon be true of cameras and bad photos.

Just as today's cameras won't shoot until your subject is in focus (and sometimes smiling, too), tomorrow's cameras (and eventually camcorders) will prevent you from cutting people's heads off, banish spots and zits, and even automatically remove billboards and telephone wires from landscapes.

The University of California in San Diego showcased the technology in a suggested update for Google Street View that automatically removes people from captured images , preserving privacy and turning even crowded streets into ghost towns.

In the future, before you shoot, your camera will direct you to the most photogenic angle of a tourist landmark, recommend settings and encourage you to zoom in to fill the frame. Once you hit the shutter, a dozen other automatic systems will get to work, airbrushing out extraneous details, removing unsightly wrinkles from faces and boosting colour and exposure.

Basically, every photo you take will look technically stunning. The flipside, of course, is that every photo you take will look like every other photo everyone else takes.

Likely release date: Auto-everything cameras -- 2012.

In digital photography's infancy, each month saw more and more pixels squeezed onto image sensors. Resolution would double and double again, rendering cameras obsolete scarcely before you'd filled a memory card. But now the resolution wars are over, right? Cameras range from about 10 to 18 megapixels, prints look great and everyone's happy?

Not Canon. At this year's Canon Expo , the photography giant showed off an omnidirectional camera that captured full 360-degree images using a 50-megapixel CMOS sensor. It then followed it up with the world's largest CMOS -- a "chip" measuring over 20cm2. Because of its size, this monster can capture one hundred times the light of a normal SLR sensor, enabling photography in the darkest of conditions.

But that wasn't all. Canon's pride and joy is a 120-megapixel sensor destined for still and video cameras that are just a twinkle in the eye of some HD-obsessed boffin. None of these chips will be surfacing in cameras anytime soon, but one thing is for sure: the resolution wars aren't over -- they just took a break.

Likely release date: 50-megapixel SLR -- 2013. 120-megapixel still/video camera -- 2017.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Don't Miss
Hot Products
Trending on CNET

HOT ON CNET

Is your phone battery always at 4 percent?

These battery packs will give your device the extra juice to power through all of those texts and phone calls.