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How Smartphone Startup Light Plans to Replace High-End Cameras

Thanks to a partnership with Foxconn, the startup hopes its technology will find its way into phones by next year.

Light

From a small space in Palo Alto, Calif., startup Light is looking to turn the camera industry on its head.

Smartphones have already decimated the market for compact, point-and-shoot cameras. Now, Light says it has a plan for the smartphone to replace high-end cameras too.

The company has been working for the last couple of years on an array of tiny cameras, each with a different focal length, taken in aggregate, that can mimic the zoom and high resolution of a larger camera without the unsightly bulge of a traditional zoom lens. It also sees a role for such arrays inside security cameras and other small devices.

Ina Fried

Improving camera technology for phones is not unique to Light. Apple recently bought LinX, another startup working in the field of “computational photography.” Samsung released a series of phone-camera hybrid devices, and Nokia has released a couple of phones with a 41-megapixel cameras.

Taking a lesson from other camera startups, such as Lytro, which have struggled to shake up the camera industry, Light isn’t going it alone. The company has licensed its technology to Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, which makes Apple’s iPhones.

“We expect them to have smartphones in the market next year,” CEO Dave Grannan said in an interview.

So how does it all work?

To explain the technology to outsiders, CTO and co-founder Rajiv Laroia draws a series of diagrams on a whiteboard. Laroia talks about photons hitting pixels and moving mirrors that allow the lenses to sit at an angle rather than protrude from the end of the phone.

 CTO Rajiv Laroia explaining the technology behind Light’s camera array, in a conference room at the company’s Palo Alto offices
CTO Rajiv Laroia explaining the technology behind Light’s camera array, in a conference room at the company’s Palo Alto offices
Ina Fried

Put more simply, Light tries to emulate digitally what a big zoom lens does through expensive glass lenses. It aggregates the data from the different cameras to create both optical zoom and high-resolution images. Light has applied for a bunch of patents to cover aspects of its approach, including creating zoom using images from the multiple fixed-focal-length lenses.

As a business, Light is banking on the idea that using smartphone cameras, even a bunch of them, is a far more economical way to achieve the kind of images that in the past have required expensive glass lenses.

The technology is ready, says Grannan, who previously ran startup Vlingo and also worked at Sprint PCS. There is, of course, added cost in putting a bunch of cameras and mirrors inside a cellphone, an addition of perhaps $60 to $80 in the final cost of a phone, Light estimates.

It also adds thickness. But Grannan is optimistic that some buyers will go for it, especially camera enthusiasts. And it could be a boon for phone makers looking to stand out from a bunch of similar-looking smartphones.

“Android is a race to the bottom,” he said.

That said, if the market for standard Android phones is cutthroat, the market for niche Android products has been elusive. Samsung experimented with a phone that doubled as a projector while others have added secondary screens and other gimmicks only to find that most customers want either cheap, or thin and light — or both.

But Grannan says consumers will bite, particularly if they have a chance to give up on fancy high-end cameras. He picks up a big SLR camera. “This will go away once our tech starts going in cellphones,” he said.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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