by: Jack Lau
For some who have good memories, you may recall that when Nokia still reigned the mobile phone world, it was such a “wow” moment when they first introduced a phone with a camera. Yes, it was the Nokia 7650 which became available in 2002. The phone featured a VGA camera.
We still remember people asking around, what is the use of such a silly small camera! (Well, apparently, Nokia spent a ton of resources trying to convince you the usefulness of having a built-in phone camera. Check out this Nokia 7650 commercial! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xidvxCBdvhs
Fast forward to 2019, only seventeen years later, people are now changing phone “because” of the cameras. The latest Huawei P30 has actually 4 cameras built in.
Why so many cameras? And, who makes them?
Let’s start with just one camera and see if we can understand why we need two instead of one.
You see, smart phones have some constraint in terms of size. If you want to take a zoomed photo, the option for a while would be a digital zoom — essentially using digital technologies to “guess” what a dot in between may look like. Obviously, the quality is not as good as using an optical lens and zoom in, as you would, say, with a big lens camera.
So, the first deployment of a “dual camera” smart phone — iPhone 7, which was then followed by many, was to use the second camera to help users take zoomed in photos.
By having a secondary camera on the phone, the processor can also do some math and compute the distance from the camera to the background and perform some fantastic blurring. Such is useful if you switch your phone to the portrait mode, which is fantastic in taking a picture of a person. The person will emerge as crisp and clear while the background can be blurred.
If you have a phone such as an iPhone X, you can even try — in portrait mode, blur the background in different degrees, very similar to the effect of changing the focal length in a regular camera. Do try it! (On an iPhone, select “portrait” mode. After taking the photo, hit the “edit” button and you can select the amount the background can blur.)
Coming back. The Huawei P30 phone most talked about feature is the cameras. It has actually 4 cameras. Why?
The cameras allow the P30 to perform tricks from superior depth sensing, zooming, and wide-angle photography.
The phone also leverages on their AI core engine called Kirin and perform a number of interesting tricks, such as “Moon mode”, which will understand that you are taking photos of the Moon and enhance your photo quality. (This has generated some controversy though since some argue that the result is too “fake”.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLTrC7QG3bI
So, who makes these possible? Well, in the technological world, no one can do everything by itself… really…
On the box, it would say lens from Leica. According to the “teardown” report on the image sensors are from Sony. In fact, Sony is the defacto king in the image sensor world. But, more interesting, we want to talk about one specific camera feature in the Huawei phone called the Periscope camera. Well, some may remember a periscope is what they use in a submarine to look above the water. https://www.eetasia.com/news/article/A-Teardown-Of-Huaweis-P30-Pro
See, because of the phone is so thin, designers have a difficult task in placing the camera modules and still have enough optical path, without which zooming will always have degradation in the photo quality.
So apparently, an Israeli company called Corephootonics (hang in there, there are a couple of Hong Kong angles in this story!!!) invented a technology that allows the placement of tiny prism to be placed at 45 degrees to the lens to allow the light path to “bend” and travel a longer distance. The result is some near perfect ability to zoom a photo — even up to 10X zoom.
Now, having this technology is one thing, who is going to make use of the technology — assemble it in some module so that the phone can use?
Apparently, it was none other than the Hong Kong listed company Sunny Optical (Stock Code: 2382). Five years ago, Sunny Optical was trading at around HK$10, and last year, the stock was as high as HK$150. Currently, it is about HK$97, with a market capitalization of HK$106 Billion.
In their 2018 corporate presentation (http://www.sunnyoptical.com/webfile/temps/2019032924529624.pdf), it ships about 1 billion camera modules in the smart phone market.
But, the Hong Kong story in this phone camera business does not stop here….
And, this is a pleasant surprise!
We mentioned about this Israeli company Corephotonics which is responsible for the periscope camera design. It turns out that one of the investors is a Venture fund called MizMaa. MizMaa was the lead investor in the Series D in 2017. And, ladies and gentlemen, one of the founders of MizMaa is a lady called Catherine Leung, who is not only a Hong Konger, also a Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Honorary Fellow. Great Work! https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/corephotonics#section-funding-rounds/about
And, as if this is not exciting enough. There are reports that Corephotonics was just acquired by Samsung for US$155M. Even better news.