From the take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt department at Sony Alpha Rumors, Sony is purportedly about to unveil a new high-end smartphone accessory that would add a “lens camera” to the back of a mobile device. Details are light and the image is sketchy, but what we “know” is that Sony has taken an f/1.8 Carl Zeiss glass and a 1-inch 20.2-megapixel Exmor R sensor – parts found in Sony’s Cyber-shot RX100 II (shown above) – and contained them in a device shaped like a pancake lens barrel. Sony Alpha Rumors, which quotes “two trusted sources” and gives the rumor its SR5 rating for “almost certainly correct,” says the device will also have built-in battery and memory, and transmit images via Wi-Fi and Near-Field Communication (NFC). Because everything is self-contained from a camera standpoint, the attached smartphone will only be used for its display as a viewfinder and we assume for its cellular connectivity to upload and share images. But the rumor site claims the device can be used on its own, without a smartphone; the site also claims that this “lens camera” is only the first in a series, followed by a similar model with a smaller sensor but larger zoom.
Having an external lens attached to your smartphone isn’t new. There are gadgets from the likes of Photojojo, Olloclip, and even Will.i.am that enhance the smartphone’s onboard camera. Whereas those accessories require the use of an existing feature, it seems Sony’s “lens camera” is entirely a standalone product.
It can’t be real
Now, instinct tells us to dismiss rumors right away (“we’ll believe it when we see it”). Once we got over the cool, gee-whiz factor of the product, our suspicions quickly led to questions. Besides being out of focus, the device in the image looks uncertain. If the product is real, essentially Sony has stripped the main elements of a digital camera – specifically, the RX100 II – out of the traditional rectangular box design, but have components become so small yet powerful that you can now fit them into a lens barrel that compact? The attachment clip, we’ll call it, looks dubious in its ability to create a firm grip between the lens and the phone (lenses are generally top-heavy). With no mention of image stabilization or an imaging processor, how likely is it that this “lens camera” will produce a quality image, even if it shares some of the same parts as the RX100 II?
If Sony Alpha Rumors is right in that the camera can be used without a smartphone, how would you go about controlling it? Web commenters have been pointing to a video of a similar concept called WVIL, proving that something like Sony’s “lens camera” can exist; unfortunately, the WVIL isn’t real. Plus, just look at the size of that thing in comparison to what looks to be a Sony Xperia smartphone: Do you want really want to carry something in addition to a phone? If you’re going to carry two things, why not just use a regular camera?
Oh, but it can
We are sure that there are many more questions that debunk the legitimacy of this specific product. But, whether or not the Sony “lens camera” rumor is true or not, the real question is, can such a product exist? Yes, yes it can. Look back at the history of consumer electronics and you’ll see that the trend is for things to miniaturize. Cameras, once bulky, can now fit inside something that’s palm-sized. Fitting computer parts inside a lens barrel or something compact is indeed possible (just look at the many action camcorders or Canon’s PowerShot N, a relatively small camera with an optical zoom lens and image stabilization), but whether this “lens camera” can perform as well as a full-bodied RX100 II is another matter. We also doubt the smartphone will function solely as a viewfinder or a tool for uploading photos. With apps for the major smartphone OSes, this “lens camera” can certainly harness the processing power of a mini computer to control its functions.
Quality and convenience, you can have it all
For smartphone photography, such a product would be interesting. We all know smartphones are super-handy for casual impromptu photography, but photo quality has always been an issue. With the “lens camera,” Sony seems to be saying, “If you can’t beat smartphones, join them, and, oh, your smartphone’s camera sucks.” But rather than trying to jam the best camera parts into a smartphone, it simply made something that accompanies it. Nokia is trying to build a great camera inside a slim form-factor, but there’s only so much room within to accommodate all the parts. Then you have Samsung, which incorporates an optical zoom camera into its Galaxy S4 smartphone, but the result is a bloated device that’s hardly pocket-friendly. Sony, which knows how to make both smartphones and cameras, seems to be taking a compromise approach (again, if this thing is indeed real): Keep your smartphone slim, but call upon the power of a dedicated camera when you need it. As mentioned, having to carry around a camera accessory defeats the convenience smartphones offer.
Is this how camera makers will embrace smartphones?
So, let’s say the Sony “lens camera” is real. It would be revolutionary in that a camera no longer needs its boxy housing, and it would work with a smartphone, not against it. It could solve the dilemma smartphone and camera makers constantly face when trying to merge their two products together – whether it’s adding Wi-Fi or Android to a camera to give it connectivity, or try to pack as much of the best camera components they can into what the smartphone shell allows. Nikon, which is trying to find new sources of revenue, is rumored to be working on a secret product that could piggyback on the growth of smartphones; with its experience in making terrific lenses, Nikon, too, could go this route without having to enter the smartphone business directly. Ditto for Canon, Olympus, et al.
It’s hard to believe that the Sony product in the image could be real, but it’s not impossible for such a product to actually exist.