Multiple Cameras: Overkill or a Sign of Things to Come?

‘My name is Legion, for we are many’ sounds like what the AI powered multiple camera smartphones of the future would say. While dual cameras are more or less the norm currently, there are OEMS who have been experimenting with 3 cameras (the Huawei P20 Pro), 4 cameras (the Samsung Galaxy A9) and more recently LG which has filed a patent at the USPTO for a phone with 16 cameras.

LG’s patent filing envisages the cameras arranged in a 4×4 configuration (Exhibit 1). The specifications of the patent outline a vast number of applications that the cameras can accomplish.

Exhibit 1

lg patent multiple cameras

On reviewing LG’s exhaustive filing, there were a few prominent claims that were of interest:

  • LG envisions the main display to be either LCD, TFT-LCD, OLED, flexible, 3D, E-ink or TOLED (transparent OLED). Given its prowess in OLED technology and the rollable OLED display prototype it displayed at CES earlier this year, LG could possibly create the display of the future
  • Even though the drawings do not mention it, the patent has also outlined a rear display as well. This could probably be an E-ink display given its low power consumption and high contrast ratios, used mainly for displaying notifications or camera settings.
  • The 16 cameras can be used in unison, where the feed from each camera will be displayed in a specific portion of the screen
  • The data gathered from each of these cameras can also be used for some powerful image manipulation. One example being, changing the orientation of a person’s face after the photo is taken (Exhibit 2)

Exhibit 2

lg patent picture manipulationOther specifications that are outlined also envision stitching together pictures taken from different lenses, facial recognition and search, advanced selection methods and where the correct lens is selected based on the movement and orientation of the phone calculated from the accelerometer and gyroscope data.

Multiple cameras open up myriad possibilities for the end user, however there are certain OEMs who are bucking the trend and sticking to single cameras such as Google’s current crop of Pixel phones which are instead relying on AI smarts to power its single camera. Other OEMs seem to be upping their camera game, case in point Nokia’s purported 5 camera smartphone. Nokia’s upcoming smartphone could possibly incorporate some technology from camera maker LIGHT. FIH-Foxconn (one of HMD Global’s manufacturing partners) had licensed technology from LIGHT and made an equity investment a couple of years ago. Therefore, it is not improbable to consider technology sharing between FIH-Foxconn and HMD Global.

nokia 5 camera phone

With cameras seemingly occupying increasing real estate on the backs of smartphones with each passing day, there are certain implications and challenges that need to be overcome by most OEMS:

  • Multiple cameras would entail a higher BoM cost (more on our BoM cost trackers here) and therefore it remains to be seen whether multi-camera smartphones would remain exclusive to the premium segment
  • Storage capacities and RAM would need dramatic increases to support the sheer size and volume of data that multi-camera phones would output. On-board image manipulation and video editing will not be possible without the extra horsepower.
  • There would be design challenges due to the multi-camera set-ups, the increase in storage capacities and RAM. Initially, only OEMs with strong in-house design capabilities would be able to launch well designed multi-camera smartphones
  • Battery capacity is also crucial, launching a multi-camera smartphone that has dismal battery life would be akin to burning money. OEMs will have to find a way to decrease the power draw, increase battery capacity and efficiency or design smartphones with swappable batteries (similar to what LG has outlined in its patent)
  • To reduce BoM costs, OEMs could consider taking a tack similar to Google, cutting down on the number of cameras and using AI to power image/video processing tasks rather than solely relying on hardware
  • For other OEMs, strategic partnerships would be key to bringing out multi-camera smartphones with a polished UI and advanced image processing and recognition skills