Pelican Imaging aims to free us from focus anxiety

We’re all familiar with that second of terror after pressing the shutter button – waiting for the camera to focus while the scene disappears before our eyes. Camera phone users have it the worst, with autofocus often taking a second or more. Pelican Imaging aims to free all of us from focus anxiety by eliminating the need for focusing altogether. Images come out of its camera module entirely in focus, from foreground all the way to the background. Users will be able to fiddle with the focus after the fact – as with a Lytro – but don’t have to. It is a true “fire and forget” solution to the problem of autofocus.

What makes Pelican’s approach unique is that, unlike other array-based or so-called plenoptic cameras, it uses a small array (4 x 4 and 5 x 5 in its first designs) of traditional imaging elements – each one sensitive to a single colour. In contrast, Lytro and other plenoptic designs, like the Toshiba chip announced at the end of last year, use a sensor composed of hundreds of thousands of multipixel elements, each creating a mini version of the image.

Pelican’s unique approach provides it with one huge differentiator – its sensor module is self-contained, with no additional lens required. The tiny lenses mounted over each active area of its sensor are all that is required to form an image. The result is a dramatically thinner and less expensive camera module. Pelican’s modules can be made under 3mm high – a low enough “z height” to fit into just about any smartphone.

Finding depth through parallax

The basic idea behind Pelican’s design is not new. Light field photography – defined as the capture of not just the amount of light falling on a sensor, but also the direction of that light – has been around for a while. Recently, over in the US it has found its way into a consumer product in the form of Lytro’s camera.

Lytro uses hundreds of thousands of “super pixels” that feature specialised microlenses over groups of adjacent photosites. Its design allows it to capture the light coming from several directions on each of those groups of pixels. By knowing the direction of each ray, Lytro can recompute focus after the image is taken. In exchange, it sacrifices resolution, since each group of pixels acts more like a single pixel as far as resolution is concerned. Its 11 million photosite camera captures 11 “megarays,” but produces a final image of just over 1-megapixel.

Pelican turns the traditional plenoptic design on its head, in what in hindsight seems like a straightforward and simple to manufacture approach. It divides its imager up into an array of “mini cameras” – typically only a few in each dimension. Each tiny imager only records a single colour. It is probably no accident that this design harks back to the original camera array work at Stanford, since Pelican advisor Marc Levoy was one of the guiding lights of that effort.

While there is some cleverness involved in the arrangement of the sensor components – they aren’t in a strict Bayer pattern, for example – CTO Kartik Venkataraman is quick to stress that the real magic is in the image processing software that reassembles a full resolution image and detailed depth map from the many low resolution versions captured by each section of the imager. In its 4 x 4 reference design the 16 0.75-megapixel images are processed and reassembled into an 8-megapixel final JPEG version, complete with embedded depth map.

Venkataraman and Pelican’s new CEO, Chris Pickett, clearly took great pride in describing Pelican’s unique software to me, as they should. The image reassembly process has to tackle a true chicken and egg situation. The Pelican sensor doesn’t know either the light source – the way in which, say for example Kinect does, by providing its own – or the distance of the subjects in the scene. Typically, once the distance to an object is known, it is relatively simple to calculate how it registers on multiple sensors and combine multiple images into one.

Conversely, once it is known how an image or light source registers on two different sensors, it’s possible to use the math of parallax to calculate how far away it is. Pelican’s software starts by knowing neither distance or registration, and it calculates both. More amazingly, it can do it in near real-time on a sufficiently powerful mobile processor – like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 it uses for demos.

It’s easy to dismiss a canned video demo, so I stopped by Pelican (headquartered in Mountain View, California) to see for myself. If anything the samples it has on the web under-hype the possibilities of the technology. Watching it work in real-time in various situations around Pelican’s offices was really fun, and made me want to be able to use the final product.

Moore’s law to the rescue: Timing is everything

The algorithms that Venkataraman has incorporated in the Pelican software are revolutionary. They are also processor intensive. When he co-founded the company in 2008, there weren’t any mobile processors fast enough to run them in real-time. Now there are. It is no accident that Pelican’s demo at Mobile World Congress used a Snapdragon 800. Taking advantage of the CPU, GPU and ISP on high-speed mobile designs is crucial to making the Pelican imager work.

Recognising its reliance on tight integration with mobile device architectures, and the reality of its small size, Pelican has elected to license technology and design expertise to hardware vendors, rather than going it alone with its own finished products. It expects to begin announcing partnerships soon, with products to arrive in the marketplace by the first half of next year.

In addition to entirely removing autofocus delay, Pelican also removes the noise that goes with it. Imagine having complete control over focus in a video without any distracting focus motor noise. Even shot to shot time should be minimised with the Pelican design, as post processing can be delayed until the processor and camera are idle.

Does this mean more trouble for Lytro?

Smartphones are currently built with fixed focal length designs, so the 3mm high, inexpensive, Pelican design is perfect. In contrast, the relatively large single lens of traditional point and shoots and the Lytro allow them to zoom as well as focus. At least for now, Pelican will have to be content with revolutionising the mobile device space. Fortunately for Pelican, another advantage it has over Lytro is that its imager can also capture video – which is essential in the mobile space.

Pelican isn’t alone in working to minimise autofocus worries. It’ll face competition from the MEMS-based offering from Digital Optics Corporation (DOC) that features a reduced 200ms AF acquisition time at a similar price point. The DOC module stops at fast AF though. It doesn’t offer refocusing or any depth information for later processing.

Didn’t Nokia try this with Extended Depth of Field?

Another much-heralded attempt to deliver focus-free photography has been the Extended Depth of Field (EDOF, or “full focus”) camera modules. Using carefully designed aspherical lenses and some after-the-shot image reconstruction, EDOF imagers can render almost all of an image scene in focus at the same time.

Nokia in particular released several phones featuring EDOF imagers. Unfortunately, EDOF technology doesn’t allow close focusing. With business cards, meals, and macro photographs being popular smartphone camera subjects, the 40cm or so minimum focus distance for EDOF imagers just isn’t close enough for most people. By contrast, Pelican’s designs can focus down to a distance of 15cm.

Camera plus depth and gesture control

While freedom from focusing is the most obvious benefit of Pelican’s new imager design, that’s really just the beginning of what’s possible with the full depth map that it creates while processing the image. The map is accurate enough for gesture detection, for example, making it plausible that a single front-facing camera could be used both as a webcam and for gesture control of a computer or phone. It’s no LEAP Motion, so don’t expect to be able to sign your name in the air with it, but swiping aside windows or rotating objects on the screen should be a no-brainer.

To accommodate these types of applications, the Pelican imager generates a low resolution depth map in literal real-time (yes, I saw it demoed and it’s pretty cool), which after the fact it can process into a full resolution depth map for more detailed applications. Other applications could include “all-in-one” auto backup cameras that are also distance detectors, and of course video games.

Pelican believes that in volume its imager designs should cost under $20 (£13) to produce, a similar price to the camera modules used in high-end smartphones like the Apple iPhone 5 today.

While you’re here, you might also want to read: Beyond mere megapixels – the smartphone camera of the future.