Startup of the Week / Finally, Your Smartphone Can Zoom

Corephotonics has figured out how to make a smartphone camera that can really see distant objects.

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Tired of blurry "selfies"? Despite constant improvements in mobile phone cameras, the photos are still inferior to those you get from "real" cameras. Israeli startup Corephotonics was founded in 2012 to change this.

“We want to bridge the gap between the camera in the smartphone and the experience of a camera called a DSC - Digital Still Camera - in the professional jargon," says Gal Shabtay, the company's cofounder and director of development. "We saw there are several things that account for the major gaps, first and foremost the optical zoom. There isn't a real zoom in a smartphone camera, but rather a digital zoom, which is in effect a manipulation of the picture.”

A real zoom requires a relatively thick lens, and thick is anathema to smartphone manufacturers, who are always looking for ways to further slim their products.

Corephotonics plans to solve this problem, among others, with a simple but brilliant patented technology: A camera with two lenses.

"There are two openings, or two lenses, if you will: One with a narrow and distant field of vision and another with a broad and close field," says Shabtay, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering from Tel Aviv University. “We absorb information from the two lenses and create a fusion — we create one picture. Using this technology, we can provide a real zoom in a cellular camera, a sequential zoom of up to 3 times in a still photo and of up to 5 times in a video film with full HD quality.

“The fact that the Corephotonics camera is based on two lenses also solves the problems of limited exposure to light and slow photography. There are additional technologies that we’re constructing, such as a technology to stabilize a picture and a technology for fast focus,” says Shabtay.

And good news: a two-lens camera will not necessarily be more expensive. “In the world of smartphones there is a relatively large variety in the field of photography, from cameras with 5 megapixels to cameras with 41 megapixels and everything in the middle,” says Shabtay. “We have a camera that’s not cheap, because it has two lenses and two sensors, but there are more expensive cameras.”

The technology also requires that the smartphones have good processing capabilities, but not exceptional ones. At a recent cellphone convention, Corephotonics demonstrated that its two-lens technology works with a processor that is already used in many smartphones on the market.

Corephotonics does not manufacture the camera; it just designs the hardware and software and sells the blueprint to device manufacturers — a role known as "reference design."

The technology blogosphere recently revealed that Taiwanese manufacturer HTC's next flagship device, to be launched at the end of the month, will contain two lenses. Corephotonics says it isn't behind the camera in the device, but is in touch all the major phone manufacturers and will be happy if two-lens technology becomes standard.

Shabtay established Corephotonics together with David Mendlovic, who serves as the CEO. At Tel Aviv University, Shabtay specialized in the field of optical processing. Mendlovic, a professor of electrical engineer who served as the Science Ministry's chief scientist from 2008 to 2010, was his teacher. The two men previously founded another cellphone photography company, Eyesquad, which they sold to the American company Tessera in 2007 for $18 million.

To date, Corephotonics has raised $10 million from BetaAngels, Magma and Horizon Ventures in one round of funding. The company employs 25 people in Tel Aviv's Ramat Hahayal neighborhood and is now hiring additional employees to develop software and computer algorithms.

Samsung Electronics Co. Galaxy Nexus smartphones.Credit: Bloomberg
Corephotonics' two-lens camera with optical zoom.Credit: Courtesy
A demonstration of digital zoom (L) versus Corephotonics' zoom.Credit: Courtesy

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