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New signal processor to boost mobile camera images
May 15, 2017, 5:15 pm

ARM is the main company designing the processors and graphics systems that go into most mobile phones available in the market today. So, when ARM says it is going to include image signal processors (ISP) to its product portfolio, it is a very big deal for cameras in our mobile phones. 

Every mobile device with a camera today has an ISP that takes the raw data gathered by the image sensor and turns it into something that can be usefully displayed on the phone, or shared with friends, or sent to a computer. When a click a quick selfie, or take a snap with our mobile phone, the camera in the unit uses a lens to focus light onto a sensor. An ISP then converts the data from the sensor into a representation of the scene in a digital format. The problem with most phones available in the market today is that they all have lousy ISP, and consequently the images they produce are usually of inferior quality.

Many Chinese smartphone manufacturers tout that they use the latest and greatest image sensor from Sony, or that they employ an array of lenses in their device, but when you get to take snaps with the phone you find that the pictures are not quite as awesome as you were led to expect. That is where the ISP disadvantage comes into play. Most mobile manufacturers may have access to great optics and sensors, but they do not have access to the years of research and development that companies like Google, Apple or Samsung have put into image signal processing.

The news that ARM is about to launch its own ISP is welcome news to the low-end mobile market. Though the company’s latest Mali-C71 is intended for autonomous cars and may be a bit overpowered for our camera phones, ARM is understood to have already released the mobile solution to its silicon partners and it could start turning up in the market over the next few months.

Silicon partnerss such as Qualcomm licenses the intellectual property from ARM and then works to integrate the ISP into its system-on-a-chip (SoC) design, which would also include the various CPU and GPU cores, as well as power management and other integrated parts. Then a smartphone maker can just order an all-in-one solution from Qualcomm or other SoC manufacturers to build a new smartphone or tablet device around: CPU, GPU, and ISP all nicely tucked into the same chip.

A smartphone vendor that buys a chip with this ISP built in is essentially outsourcing all of that complex work and making the task of engineering a new device much simpler. They will still be able to tune the ISP to their liking, so there is no danger of every camera churning out the same imagery anytime soon, and ARM recommends that each company spends at least two months doing exactly that.

The simple promise that is embedded in this new technology — better image processing from chips — is that it will be available to all mobile makers, not just an exclusive few. Phone cameras have consistently lagged behind display technology and industrial design, both of which have grown to be amazing even on mid-range devices, but this new ISP tech promises to bring them up to parity in a hurry.

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