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Firm says chip to sharpen digital photos

Foveon unveils its X3 image sensor chip, saying it will improve the quality of digital photographs by capturing a larger amount of color resolution.

A company introduced a new chip Monday that it said could vastly improve the image quality of digital photographs.

Foveon on Monday unveiled its new X3 image sensor chip, saying it dramatically improves the quality of digital photographs by capturing three times the color resolution of comparable image sensors found in today's digital cameras.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Foveon is a privately held company whose investors include National Semiconductor, Synaptics and venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates.

The company also said its image sensors are being designed to be compatible with a range of cameras, handheld personal assistants, cell phones and fingerprint-recognition devices.

The standard sensors in digital cameras today are CCD or CMOS sensors. These sensors are covered in photosensitive picture elements, or pixels. The greater the number of pixels on a sensor, the higher the resolution a sensor can capture. Higher resolution translates to sharper images with greater detail. A 1.3-megapixel, entry-level point-and-shoot camera costs about $175, compared with a 5.2-megapixel camera that costs more than $1,000.

Sensors in most existing digital cameras partially capture one of the primary colors and mathematically extrapolate and estimate the remaining colors, Foveon said. Only professional models, which cost several thousand dollars, use multiple chips to fully capture the primary colors and come close to matching the image quality found in most traditional, advanced cameras.

Foveon, however, says the sensor captures the primary colors at each pixel, creating sharper, more brilliant color. The company said its image sensors detect color in a manner similar to color film, which registers different colors of light at different layers of photosensitive material, with each layer detecting a specific color. Using a similar paradigm, Foveon said its X3 image sensors consist of three layers of photo detectors that capture all three primary colors.

The first camera to use the X3 image sensor will be Sigma's SD9 SLR digital camera. A price for this new model was unavailable.