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LinX is an Israeli startup providing multi-aperture cameras that promise smaller smartphone camera modules with better image quality. The idea is fairly simple: Instead of having a single large image sensor with a lot of pixels and the large optics that go with it, LinX’s imaging device is split into 2-4 smaller sub-cameras...

The tricky part is the software that combines the images. Parallax between the small cameras creates slight differences that have to be taken into account computationally, which usually involves generating a scene in 3D. This approach is called computational imaging.

This acquisition is firstly a confirmation of the industry’s interest in using multiple cameras to solve the dilemma of getting high-quality images from a constrained space, as discussed in our recent report “Status of the CMOS Image Sensor Industry”. Obviously, Apple is THE technology and market trend setter. It was the first company to leverage picture quality to sell its smartphones. At the time of the iPhone 4 in 2010, the cornerstone technology was called BSI (Backside Illuminated Imagers) allowing digital still camera (DSC)-like pixel count and comparable image quality. More recently this technology was pushed one step further with stacked BSI technology from Sony integrated into the iPhones 5 and 6. As we have witnessed, improving image quality while reducing footprint and module height has been a constant driver of Apple’s imaging technology roadmap. The multiple camera approach might be the next technology enabler.

Wafer Production Forecast 2009-2020
Source : “Status of the CMOS Image Sensor Industry” , Yole Développement January 2015
Wafer Production Forecast 2009 2020 Yole DéveloppementThe second insight from this news is the great success of the Israeli imaging hub. Exactly one year ago, in April 2014, Towerjazz was announcing a joint venture with Panasonic, and therefore becoming a top notch imaging foundry with access to 12” technology. The year before, Samsung was opening an innovation center in Tel Aviv mostly dedicated to imaging. Additionally Mobileye went public last year with a $5B valuation, bringing the power of image analysis to advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). You can find out more about this from the recent Mobileye EyeQ3® Automotive Vision-Based SoC reverse engineering analysis from System Plus Consulting here.
The Israeli imaging ecosystem is now richer than ever with promising new startups like Unispectral, and also Corephotonics, a company offering products very similar to LinX, which has recently raised $17.8M. This is not the first purchase Apple has made in this area. It bought Primesense, known for supplying the Microsoft Kinect’s 3D imaging technology, in 2013 for $350M.

Purchasing an imaging software company in this region is another part of the worldwide puzzle that is the camera module supply chain of Apple. All of the necessary technology could have come from a single country. Japan, for example, is the source of Sony’s sensor, and Alps’ and Mizumi’s autofocus and optical image stabilization technology. Instead, Apple is deliberately bringing its module assembly to Korean LG Innotek, getting the key 5 lens optical module from Taiwanese Largan, and now probably future computational software from Israel. This really looks like ‘divide and rule’ to us. The camera module business from Apple reached $2.5B in 2014. In fact this was more like five sets of $500M, each subcontractor gaining extreme momentum due to this particular customer.

Apple’s snatching up of such an early-stage startup is also a sign of the times. Imaging used to be a race of semiconductor and optical technology. More recently auto-focus and optical stabilization have added a (micro) electro mechanical twist to this race. The latest capital investments suggest software is also getting increasing attention and is gradually moving the center of gravity of the entire imaging industry. 3D integration techniques at the chip level have indeed liberated a lot of “space” for computation. Moving software inside the sensor is yet to be seen as heat is usually detrimental to image quality. This may be an opportunity for advanced node technology such as Fully Depleted Silicon On Insulator (FD-SOI). Smartphone camera modules have become the host of some of the most advanced technologies, and in the short term computational imaging could be one of them. Here at Yole, we will make sure to keep you updated.


Pierre Cambou - Activity Leader, Imaging & Sensors
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In 1999 Pierre Cambou joined the imaging industry. He had earned an Engineering degree from Université de Technologie de Compiègne in parallel to a Master of Science from Virginia Tech in 1998. More recently he graduated from Grenoble Ecole de Management’s MBA. Pierre took several positions at Thomson TCS which became Atmel Grenoble in 2001 and e2v Semiconductors in 2006. In 2012 he founded the start-up Vence Innovation (now called Irlynx) in order to bring to market a disruptive Man to Machine interaction technology. He joined Yole Développement as Imaging Activity Leader in 2014.


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