Preparing to leave office after eight years he has publicly joked about how little experience he has with today's gadgets. Speaking on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the President joked, "I was this cool high tech guy when I got there. I was the first president to have a Blackberry. Then years pass and no one else has Blackberrys."

Consumer technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last eight years, driven by cut throat competition, an increasingly globalized economy, and some of the world's brightest minds. Every day new products are released that seemed like science fiction not too long ago. Voice-controlled devices that can manage your home, from the thermostat to the light switches, are now common place. Nearly every gadget syncs with every other gadget, everything exists in clouds, and nobody uses Facebook anymore.

One of the most impressive developments of the last decade, and a development that has become central to most of our lives, is the quality of the cameras being installed in our smartphones. The average smartphone now has an extremely high resolution camera that has almost completely replaced the need for traditional hand held cameras. But what has driven the development of the modern smartphone camera and where is it headed next?

Mobile phone camera expert Eugene Panich, CEO of Almalence, says the best is yet to come. "The advances in recent years have been remarkable to be sure, but the future of smartphone cameras will be mind blowing."

This is a look at the past, present, and future of smartphone cameras according to Panich.

1. Software-driven development. The odds are that President Obama's Blackberry possessed a very rudimentary camera that took simple, low resolution pictures. Since then, the top line smartphones have certainly upgraded the equipment (sensors) in the cameras, but the biggest quality difference has been achieved by software.

Software was first utilized to do simple things, like add sepia filters or enhance contrast. But now every photo taken by a top tier smartphone is processed through a highly advanced software that enhances the image quality digitally. The ability to take a cropped picture and zoom it in without losing huge volumes of resolution is made possible by digital enhancement.

From the time a person takes a picture with their phone till they see it in their photo album, which happens almost instantly, a software running in the background has totally transformed the final product. The ability to take pictures in low light or to capture professional-looking HDR images has been achieved through software developments, like Almalence's own super sensor, which is used on millions of smartphones around the world today.

2. Today's cameras. Today, smartphone cameras may be on the verge of big leap forward. Experts like Panich believe that software has been leveraged to achieve almost all that it can without other technologies catching up. Phones need better processing power to support some of the emerging software solutions, for example. There are also still large sections of the smartphone market that have not integrated software into their cameras.

Generally speaking, low end smartphones do not have any complex photo processing built in to their system. In order to keep the price point low, they sacrifice computational power, which means they cannot support the more sophisticated image processing programs. Mid-tier phones are frequently where companies choose to experiment with new camera technology, so some of them have very robust combinations of hardware and software. But that is not universal, so consumers should certainly investigate individual specifications if they want to be sure of what they are buying.

Today, only top-tier smartphones are guaranteed to have advanced software programs enhancing photos. And the companies that make those phones have some big decisions to make.

3. The future. The next leap forward is anyone's guess at the moment. But Panich says that without working on new combinations of hardware and software, the only improvements that can be made will be incremental.

These are a few possible advancements that we could see in the coming years:

  • Array cameras, from many small cameras placed in a small array, to an array of big (normal mobile size) cameras occupying large part of phone.
  • Mobile phones with four cameras placed at considerable distances (like in the corners) to achieve good 3D performance
  • Pop-up and other mechanically transforming cameras implementing either optical zoom feature or accommodating large sensors
  • Additional wide-angle, 180 or even 360 degree cameras
  • Attachable camera modules (making the device bigger but allowing better imaging)

There are already mobile apps that are experimenting with futuristic photo software concepts, like Fyuse and Phogy, as well as software using sophisticated algorithms to achieve the best quality of traditional photos, like A Better Camera. Time will tell which vision for software and hardware combinations the big phone makers choose.

Published on: Jul 15, 2016