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Bringing rapid-fire photos to digicams

While most digital cameras' processors leave you waiting between shots, start-up NuCore's chips let you fire off five frames a second. Pixel freaks, take notice.

Sure, your spiffy new digital camera has a big zoom lens and can capture millions of pixels. But what kind of signal processor is it packing?

NuCore Technologies, a semiconductor start-up with offices in Japan and Silicon Valley, is hoping to get consumers and camera makers to pay attention to some of the overlooked elements that make a digital camera work.

When it comes to semiconductors, most of the attention in digital cameras goes to image sensors, the chips that capture light from a camera lens. Camera buffs argue passionately about the benefits of CMOS versus CCD sensors--the standard sensors in digital cameras today--and start-ups such as Foveon have promised to revolutionize photography with new approaches to image sensors.

NuCore makes digital and analog signal processors, the chips that take the signal from the image sensor and turn it into something that can be stored in memory. Major Japanese camera makers typically either make their own signal processors or buy low-end chips from suppliers such as Texas Instruments or LSI Logic.

But signal processors can make a big difference, said NuCore CEO James Chapman, a former Transmeta executive. NuCore's design allows images to be processed much more rapidly, meaning the user can squeeze off many more photos of quick-moving subjects. The first still camera to use the company's signal processors--the Lumix DMC-F7 from Panasonic--can shoot five frames a second. Typical digital cameras need up to a few seconds between shots.

"Cameras are sold mostly on megapixels, so we've got a job to do as far as educating consumers," Chapman said. "But anybody who tries to take photos of children will understand the value of this."

NuCore's analog processor also includes sophisticated color-equalization routines, meaning the final image recorded by the camera will have smoother colors.

"Its not just a matter of how many pixels--there are other factors that determine image quality," said Tohru Nishikawa, NuCore's vice president of corporate development.

Chris Chute, digital imaging analyst for research firm IDC, said the speed advantage of the NuCore chips could be a convincing selling point for high-end cameras.

"One of the things that's been a detriment to the digital camera is there's such a long time between pressing the shutter button and actually taking a picture," Chute said.

The challenge for NuCore, he said, will be winning over camera makers such as Sony and Canon that already make their own chips. "It's tough to come in to a market with a one-product portfolio and your potential customers already have decided how they're going to address the market," he said.

Besides the Panasonic still camera, NuCore's chips are being used in the GV-DV300, a high-end digital camcorder from JVC. Chapman said he sees significant potential in the emerging market for combo devices--such as Panasonic's SV-AV10--that combine video and still-camera functions.

"I think there's going to be a definite market for a real hybrid camera, something where you get both functions without trade-offs," Chapman said.