Silicon Image, Inc. introduced an 18-Megapixel image signal processor Intellectual Property (IP) core.

Oct 27, 2009
Analysis: What it takes to build 18-Mpixel basic phones

Written by: Junko Yoshida
EE Times
(10/12/2009 8:01 AM EDT)

MANHASSET, NY — It won't be long before your ho-hum camera phone -- essentially a phone with a toy camera -- will turn into a real camera with a real phone. You've heard that before.

But seriously, what will it take to make that happen? And will it affect all -- even the most basic phones?

Silicon Image, Inc. is introducing Monday (Oct. 12th) an 18-Megapixel image signal processor Intellectual Property (IP) core. The company claims that the new IP core, called "camerIC-18," supports resolutions ranging from 5MP to 18MP. The IP can "effectively place high-performance digital still camera features in mobile phones," said Ron Richter, director of business development at Silicon Image.

Silicon Image is neither alone nor the first to make such a claim.

Standalone image signal processor (ISP) vendors like Zoran, applications processor suppliers like Texas Instruments, SoC companies such as Samsung Electronics and NEC have been working toward that goal.

Their design options range from merging ISP with CMOS image sensors (Samsung); creating a discrete ISP chip (Zoran); making ISP a part of application processor (TI); or integrating ISP inside a baseband chip for a mobile phone.

There is no single answer as to where in a mobile handset such an ISP or a camera subsystem should reside. But Silicon Image is banking on a future in which a baseband SoC -- used in most basic feature phones -- will assume the responsibility of image signal processing.

As the pressure on cost and performance increases, Richter predicted, "Standalone ISP will be eaten up by both ends." On one end, ISP will be integrated into other chips in a handset, such as CMOS image sensor or apps processor. On another, more and more mobile phones are designed without an apps processor -- using a baseband chip only.

Silicon Image hopes to allow its licensees to develop a baseband SoC capable of supporting even HD resolution video camcorder functions.

The hardware-driven camerIC-18 core uses a minimum of CPU cycles, said Richter, so that image signal processing, post-processing and image data compression functions work without hogging a lot of processing power, like an ARM9 or ARM11 used in most baseband ICs.

Where will Silicon Image fit in?

Similarly, Zoran earlier this year demonstrated new multimedia processors, called APPROACH 7, promising to deliver "a new level of quality camera experience, HD video capture and playback, and 2D/3D graphics to the multimedia mobile phone market."

Then, there is apps processor behemoth TI, with OMAP.

Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, said that "TI continues to be number one in the application processor business, and they incorporate ISP technology in their latest OMAP3 solutions such as in the PalmPre." Indeed, TI is out of the 2G and 2.5G cell phone market, but the company will continue to ship millions of 3G basebands to Nokia, for at least another year, he added.

So, where will Silicon Image fit in this competitive landscape?

Most likely, Silicon Image's direct competitors are none of the above. Richter noted that his company's competitors are often in-house mobile chip vendors.

Clearly, different design options offer different pros and cons. Strauss pointed out that the problem of merging CMOS image sensors with image signal processors (ISPs) is tradeoffs, "since the chip processes optimized for CMOS image sensors are not optimal for ISPs."

However, Strauss added, "It makes sense to place the ISP, or some subset of its signal processing functions, on the image sensor die for cost and space savings."

Meanwhile, "for higher-resolution sensors (>5Mpixels), the problem of bad pixels becomes a problem that can be remedied with ISPs," noted Strauss. The issue here is that it now "requires memory to compare patterns of subsequent images to detect the bad or missing pixels. It forces the ISP into a separate chip."

That separate chip may actually be a discrete ISP chip (with memory) or part of a baseband chip, or an application processor at the high end of performance, Strauss concluded.

In many ways, the ISP function is increasingly becoming part of the application processor, said Strauss. Moreover, in basic camera phones, most already employ at least some ISP processing in the baseband chip, he added.
It means that leading mobile phone chip suppliers are likely to offer different camera phone solutions by integrating different degrees of ISP functions in different SoCs.

Strauss said that Silicon image is competing against a few Asian companies like Core Logic and MtekVision in Korea, "but they also compete against in-house solutions, such as Qualcomm's own ISPs." Strauss reminded that Qualcomm has three ISPs in their portfolio.

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