Replacing Mechanisms With Microchips

Posted: Jan 30 2014, 11:58pm CST | by , Updated: Jan 31 2014, 12:01am CST, in News | Technology News

 

Replacing Mechanisms with Microchips
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Probably the most important contributor to the semiconductor market’s continued rapid growth has been its ability to cannibalize established markets by replacing mechanical elements with cheaper electronic equivalents.  If you reflect upon it you will remember several areas in which semiconductors have replaced a more mechanical device.  A glaring example would be the replacement of old adding machines and cash registers that were prevalent until the 1980s, or digital watches that did away with any need for expensive mechanical escapements, even in watches that today ship with a traditional face and hands.

MP3 players have replaced records, CDs, and tapes.  Semiconductor imagers and flash memory have displaced camera film.  Even mundane applications of mechanics like the tuning buttons on automobile radios have been replaced with simple electronic push-buttons backed up by electronics.  Books are threatened by e-readers, floppy disks gave way to USB flash drives… The list goes on and on.

Some folks might think that this phenomenon would end at some point, but as long as Moore’s Law allows the cost of transistors to decline at a faster rate than other approaches then semiconductors will bring new economies to established applications.

What brought this to mind is a Toshiba announcement that was recently called to my attention.  The company is developing an image sensor for smart phones that supports the focus and depth-of-field functions of relatively sophisticated camera optics without the use of adjustable apertures or lenses.

This sensor, shown above, has 500,000 fixed-focus lenses, each 30 microns in diameter (or about 1/850th of an inch).  I would assume that there’s only a single pixel behind each of these lenses, making the device resemble an insect’s compound eye.

By mathematically combining these 500,000 images in various ways the image can be focused on objects at different distances from the camera, or even be made to focus on everything in the frame.  This is illustrated in the two photos below, which were taken from the same exposure.  In the top image the gent in the front is in focus, and in the lower image the focus is shifted to the man in the back of the line.Toshiba is by no means the only company to develop products in the field of “Light Field Imaging”.  Perhaps the most recognized name is Lytro, whose camera uses a standard imager behind a microlens array.  Other companies: Pelican Imaging and Raytrix, also produce cameras based on imagers that are relatively similar to Toshiba’s: in the Pelican array a standard imager is broken into 16 sub-elements, each with its own fixed-focus lens.  The Raytrix camera uses 20,000 microlenses, each with one of three focal lengths, in front of an imager.

Not only does this approach support replacement of more complex camera imaging optics, but it also allows 3D photos and films to be derived from a single-lens device.

Why is this approach being introduced now?  Why hasn’t this been done before?  I would strongly suspect that the processing behind such images has not been affordable until now.  Suppose that a $1.00 processor can perform this task today, then the same computing horsepower ten years ago might have set us back more than $35, which is probably a lot more than the cost of an adjustable-focus lens system.  Ten years from now this level of processing is likely to cost less than 3 cents.

This is the basis for that continuing progression that I mentioned at the beginning of this post: Since Moore’s Law reduces the price of chips while other solutions’ prices remain relatively static, opportunities arise for chips to displace established ways of doing things.

Visionaries who can identify mechanical systems that are ripe for replacement will profit from understanding when and how existing systems will be replaced.  Objective Analysis consults with such visionaries regularly, and is well equipped to help them understand how semiconductor prices are likely to change over both the short and the long term to enable such changes to take place.

Source: Forbes

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