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Thin is in for camera chipmaker

Smal Camera technologies develops components that allow manufacturers to produce digital cameras the size of a credit card and about a quarter-inch thick.

A start-up chipmaker focusing on image sensors for digital cameras hopes to get big by thinking small.

Smal Camera technologies, a privately held company formed in 1999 by three Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, has developed an image sensor, which is the main chip a camera uses to turn light into data, as well as related components that allow manufacturers to produce working digital cameras the size of a credit card and about a quarter-inch thick.

The company's components were first used by Logitech for its Pocket Digital camera, a credit-card-size model introduced in April. Other gadget makers are set to introduce cameras of a similar size later this month.

Maurizio Arienzo, chief executive of Cambridge, Mass.-based Smal, said part of the reason Smal can enable such compact cameras is that the company focuses on more than image sensors. The company sells a whole package of camera components, including a wafer-thin Lithium-polymer battery that powers the camera to snap at least 500 images on a single charge.

"For really lower power consumption, you have to use all the tricks you can dream up, and you have to get everything right," he said. "You screw up one thing, and there's your drain on power."

Besides long battery life and petite packages, Smal boasts that its components produce better images than the average low-budget camera. The company's image sensor captures 20 bits of data for each pixel, more than double the 8 bits per pixel most electronic displays can reproduce. Smal's chip uses the extra bits to adjust exposure pixel-by-pixel before compressing the image for final storage. The result is a camera that can handle a wide range of lighting conditions, without the washed-out or darkened zones typical of cameras without sophisticated metering systems.

Smal is counting on such advantages to give it an edge in markets besides standalone cameras. The company is negotiating with several handset makers looking to add camera capabilities to their mobile phones, predicted to be a source of major growth for digital imaging.

The company is also working with manufacturers of security cameras and automakers, which are expected to incorporate increasingly sophisticated imaging systems in cars over the next few years to improve everything from nighttime driving to avoidance of traffic tickets.

"The imaging systems in cars are getting smarter and smarter," Arienzo said. "You'd have a system that would not only read the speed limit signs but transmit that information to the cruise control."

Smal is one of a handful of chipmakers looking to boost acceptance of image sensors based on CMOS (complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor) technology. CMPS sensors to date have largely been used in low-end cameras, with CCD (charge-coupled device) sensors accounting for most of the market.

Low-power consumption and other advantages are pushing CMOS chips into the mainstream, however, and chip start-ups such as Foveon argue that CMOS designs can produce better images. Research firm In-Stat/MDR projects shipments of CMOS sensors will surpass CCD by 2004.