Does consumer phone tech drive security camera sensor evolution?

I often watch the consumer technology market because it seems that, especially with video surveillance, things that appear in the consumer video market eventually trickle down to the professional surveillance market.

This sensor might be one of those. Printed below is an abbreviated version of OmniVision's press release. What's interesting to note is the level of features available now in the fairly low-end market for video sensors in phones. That level of features is pretty impressive; just read for yourself what OmniVision touts for this sensor.

OmniVision Technologies Inc. today introduced the OV8820, a 1/3.2-inch 8-megapixel RAW CMOS image sensor based on OmniVision's proven 1.4-micron OmniBSI pixel architecture. The sensor delivers high frame rate 1080p/30 and 720p/60 high-definition (HD) video with electronic image stabilization (EIS) and full horizontal field of view (FOV) designed specifically to meet the demands of the rapidly growing smart phone markets.

"Industry research firm Yole Developpement is forecasting that 8-megapixel resolution sensors will hold over a third of the market share for camera phones by 2015," said Vinoo Margasahayam, product marketing manager for OmniVision.

In full 8-megapixel (3264 x 2448) resolution, the OV8820 operates at 24 frames per second (fps) in a 4:3 format and in 6-megapixel (3264 x 1836) resolution at 30 fps in a 16:9 format. These higher frame rates enable a number of key benefits, including: no image lag for shutter-less designs, continuous shooting, minimized rolling shutter effect, real-time image capture with no lag between resolutions, and full HD at 30 or 60 fps. A high-speed, 4-lane MIPI interface facilitates the required high data transfer rate.

One of the advanced features of the OV8820 is an integrated scaler, which enables EIS and maintains full FOV with improved signal-to-noise performance in 1080p HD video mode operating at 30 fps. Another key image processing feature is a 2 x 2 binning functionality with a post-binning re-sampling filter function that minimizes spatial artifacts and removes image artifacts around edges to deliver clean, crisp color images. This is important to achieve best-in-class 720p HD video.

OmniVision's OmniBSI backside illumination pixel architecture delivers excellent low-light sensitivity. The technology also provides improved quantum efficiency, reduced cross talk and low photo response non-uniformity, which all contribute towards significant improvements in image quality and overall camera performance.

HTC Evo 4GI have a feeling that when sensors like this one take off in the phone market, that "economy of scale" effect should mean that similar sensors will be even more affordable for the professional video surveillance market. In fact, some of the top phones (including the HTC EVO 4G, pictured at left) are already offering HD video capture. Because of that economy of scale, we should eventually see very affordable video surveillance cameras that 1) handle their own recording like video smart phones do now, 2) have better low-light performance, 3) feature image stabilization (not all of our fixed camera mounts are that stable), and 4) handle full frame rate HD video.

Let me qualify this by saying there certainly are HD video surveillance cameras today that deliver these features in full frame rate, but as of yet, we're not experiencing the economy of scale. Those cameras, by and large, are still quite expensive. I price-checked one such high-end camera that has all of those features today, and it was retailing for between $1,200 and $1,600. Now consider that the same functionality could be available in a phone that retails for less than $400, and you can guess that the video camera guts of that would cost no more than half of that (probably less than a quarter of that). What that tells me that our industry is likely to see some very significant price drops over the new few years.

Oh, and as a side note, I see some possibilities for these consumer HD video camera phones as eventually creating trickle-down applications for manned security. Picture the security officer with a fairly inexpensive, body-worn video recording device that he/she could activate when responding to an incident. We've already seen officer-worn cameras that retail for a few hundred dollars, but what if you could get the price down to less than $100? The implication then is that the officer might purchase it him/herself, just as they often have to purchase all of their duty gear (belt, light, weapon, etc.). The challenges for this mobile, body-worn application clearly would be in areas of image stabilization, cost and low-light sensitivity, but if you believe the press release above, sensor companies are rapidly improving in those areas.