Forget selfies: Sony sees next big hit at 1,000 photos a second

Visitors gathering at the Sony Corp. exhibition stand during previews of the IFA International Consumer Electronics Show in Berlin, Germany, on Sept 3, 2015.
Visitors gathering at the Sony Corp. exhibition stand during previews of the IFA International Consumer Electronics Show in Berlin, Germany, on Sept 3, 2015. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Sony built a dominant position in image sensors by helping people take high-quality photos with smartphones. Now, the company is focusing on sensors that take photos at least 10 times faster than the human eye can see.

The company is working with Nissan Motor and a Tokyo University professor on affordable technology that can process 1,000 images a second. That would be fast enough to open up completely new applications for the chips, which today are used primarily to take pictures with mobile phones and cameras. The high-speed sensors could help driverless cars avoid road hazards or allow industrial robots to speed up manufacturing.

The effort is part of Sony president Kazuo Hirai's push to make Sony a more important components supplier in addition to the higher-profile businesses of making consumer electronics, video games and movies. The company is quadrupling spending on semiconductors this year to 290 billion yen (S$3.45 billion) to meet demand for the sensors from customers including Apple and Samsung Electronics.

"Until now, Sony has been very focused on designing image sensors that deliver beautiful photos," said Shinichi Yoshimura, a Sony manager in charge of combining hardware and software for emerging technologies. "The images for sensing require a different kind of chip, and the challenge is converting technologies that make beautiful photos to new uses."

Sony controlled about 40 per cent of the US$8.7 billion image sensor market last year, compared with about 16 per cent for its next biggest competitor, Techno System Research estimates. The market is forecast to climb to about US$12 billion by 2019, and the company expects its sales to climb as much as 62 per cent to 1.5 trillion yen in three years.

"As smartphone demand matures, at some point other Sony competitors will catch up in this technology," said Yu Okazaki, an analyst at Nomura Securities Co. in Tokyo. "It is important to diversify applications to robots, cars, et cetera."

Image sensors are semiconductors that convert light into digital bits, which then can be stored in a smartphone's memory or used to guide a driverless vehicle. Making them requires heavy investments in factories, just as Intel Corp. is doing for processors and Samsung for memory chips.

Picture quality has driven development in the image-sensor industry since Sony mounted the world's first color digital camera on a jumbo jet to transmit images of landing and takeoff into the cabin in 1980. Three decades later, digital camera makers were shipping 120 million units a year. Smartphones, most equipped with two cameras, crossed the 1 billion mark in unit sales last year.

Chips that capture 1,000 frames per second do exist, but their cost and size make them impractical for mass-market uses. For example, cameras with that kind of speed run US$1,000 to US$100,000 from companies including Sony and Vision Research Inc. The challenge is to shrink that power into a module small enough to fit in a car's rear-view mirror and cheap enough for devices such as wearables.

Conventional sensors are designed with light-receiving elements side-by-side with metal circuitry, so making a chip faster typically means making it bigger. Sony has developed a way to stack the circuit and sensor, boosting speed and resolution in a smaller package.

With this approach, the company has been able to achieve 900 frames per second with prototypes. The typical high-end camera shoots about 60 photos per second.

Masatoshi Ishikawa, a professor of engineering and robotics, has been researching image processors for two decades. He has developed technology being used by Boeing in making airplanes and by a Japanese highway operator in checking tunnels for cracks.

Mr Ishikawa brought Sony and Nissan together with his own company, Exvision Inc., to set standards and explore possible uses for super-fast imaging chips.

The YouTube Inc. channel Mr Ishikawa maintains for his laboratory is full of experiments with gesture-based computer interfaces, book-scanning and robotics. The most popular video shows a mechanical hand that uses high-speed vision to win the rock-paper-scissors game against a human every time. An industrial robot with similar capability would have the potential to manufacture many times faster than humans.

"High-speed image sensors are a niche industry, but Sony has the power to take it mainstream," Mr Ishikawa said. "And that may be just two years away."