The startup pushes smartphone photography to the level of DSLRs with tiny cinema lenses

Camera startup Glass wants to improve smartphone cameras with new lens technology that could finally allow phones to achieve DSLR-like image quality.

Tech Crunch details the system in depth – it’s a great read if you’re a real camera nerd – but the short, digestible version is that Glass’ combination of a large sensor, anamorphic lenses and neural networks allow to get surprisingly excellent shots.

Anamorphic lenses aren’t new, but we’ve never seen them on smartphone cameras before. Anamorphic optics were pioneered in the 1900s, first to help record World War I and later in film, particularly in the 1950s after Twentieth Century-Fox bought the rights to the technique to create CinemaScope.

Anamorphic lenses compressed a wide field of view to the sides to accommodate 35mm film. Then, when projected through an anamorphic protector, the process was reversed and viewers would see the desired aspect ratio. Naturally, this added some interesting optical side effects, but that’s beside the point.

Example showing anamorphic (top) and symmetrical (bottom) lenses | Image credit: Glass

Glass’s system, although not quite the same, is based on similar principles. In short, Glass wanted to add a bigger sensor but didn’t just want to make it a bigger square. Instead, they made it rectangular, which made the lens and sensor longer. Then, using an anamorphic lens, Glass’ system captures a larger, distorted image and corrects it to the correct aspect ratio using the image processor.

Glass claims its prototype sensor is 11 times larger than the iPhone 13 sensor

To give an idea of ​​just how big of an improvement this can be, consider the iPhone 13’s camera. Its sensor measures around 7mm by 5mm, which means the sensor has a total surface area of about 35 square millimeters. Glass’ prototype, however, uses a 24mm x 8mm sensor with an area of ​​around 192 millimeters square. This makes the prototype Glass sensor five or six times larger than the iPhone 13 sensor.

But there is more. As Glass explained to Tech Crunch, you have to consider the full aspect ratio, which when processed would be twice as large at 24mm x 16mm. That’s around 11 times larger than an iPhone 13 sensor and just short of the APS-C standard for DSLRs. It’s also well above the Micro Four Thirds and 1-inch sensors common in mirrorless cameras.

Diagram comparing iPhone 13 and Glass sensor size | Image credit: TechCrunch

The main benefit here is a substantial increase in light captured by the camera. More light leads to better exposures and can improve camera performance in poor conditions, such as night photography.

Larger sensors can also help capture more detail in images. Plus, the larger sensor and glass help create a natural bokeh effect without the need to once simulate using software, like the portrait modes available on most modern smartphones.

Improvements, but not without drawbacks

Comparison of iPhone 12 Max (left) and Glass prototype (right) | Image credit: Glass

Of course, as impressive as it sounds, the Glass system has its downsides. As Tech Crunch explains, the complexities come from using a camera that is, optically, totally different from traditional cameras.

Anamorphic lenses also have different autofocus mechanisms and this is complex. Additionally, there are more distortions that need to be corrected compared to symmetrical lenses (although to be fair, symmetrical lenses also have smartphone-sized distortions).

That’s where machine learning and neural networks come in. Glass said it was “simple” to train a model to fix these issues to a point where most people wouldn’t notice.

Still, for a first prototype, the Glass system is impressive. Unfortunately, don’t expect it to be on your next smartphone. The startup said it was trying to convince manufacturers to ditch the old technology and embrace the anamorphic system.

Additionally, even if Glass were to strike a deal now with a smartphone company, it would be up to two years before the new camera technology hits the market.

Also, given that all we have to do so far is what Glass has said and shown, it’s worth taking all of this with a grain of salt. I’m excited to see what happens to real-world testing if Glass’ system (or other anamorphic cameras) start showing up in phones. But, I won’t hold my breath while I wait.

Header image credit: Glass

Source: Glass Via: TechCrunch

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