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Chipmaker brings pro sensors to consumer cameras

Foveon's scaled-down version of its existing 10.2-megapixel chips promises more accurate photos.

Foveon, a relatively unknown semiconductor maker run by fairly prominent industry figures, debuted a new image sensor chip that will help bring its technology to consumer digital cameras this fall.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based start-up on Monday released a 4.5-megapixel sensor that is a scaled-down version of its existing 10.2-megapixel chips, according to Eric Zarakov, vice president of marketing for the company.

HanVision, which makes cameras for the scientific market, has agreed to insert the sensor into one of its cameras. This September, Polaroid will insert the same chip into its X530 digital camera that will sell for around $399.

Foveon X3 image sensors feature vertically stacked pixels for better resolution, Zakarov said. In traditional image sensors, individual pixels for capturing red, green and blue light are adjacent to each other. A green dot directly in front of a red pixel will not be sensed directly; it becomes part of the picture through compensation algorithms which extrapolate from what was detected by surrounding green pixels.

In Foveon's sensors, vertical stacking eliminates the need for this sort of interpolation and leads to more accurate photos, he said. While the company sells 10.2- and 4.5-megapixel sensors, it has developed a 16.8-megapixel sensor in its labs, according to analyst firm iSuppli. Other companies, however, also are working on high-resolution sensors that will provide enhanced color accuracy.

So far, Foveon's sensors have been used in 10-megapixel cameras from companies like Sigma that sell for more than $1,000.

The new sensor "uses the same three-layer technology," Zakarov said.

Sales of image sensors will rise from 253 million units in 2003 to 733 million units by 2008, according to iSuppli. Most of the growth will result from sensors made on the silicon, or complementary metal oxide semiconductor, manufacturing process, which Foveon uses.

Although it's small, Foveon is fairly well connected. The company was founded by Carver Mead, a widely published professor at the California Institute of Technology and a winner of the National Medal of Technology. New Enterprise Associates, National Semiconductor and Synaptics, the people behind Apple Computer's iPod navigation wheel, were Foveon's original investors.

Last year, Federico Faggin, one of the three people given credit for inventing the first microprocessors, became CEO of the company.