Beyond HDR: This new 13-megapixel camera could change phone photography

Hands-on with the HDR-beating QuantumFilm camera sensor

It was way back in 2010 that we last heard anything much from InVisage Technologies, when it talked about making a new type of camera sensor suitable for smartphones, capable of producing dramatically better HDR pictures and videos than traditional sensors. It calls the tech QuantumFilm, and – five years later – it announced the final product. Here’s everything we know about it.

QuantumFilm in action

The 13-megapixel camera on your next smartphone may not be like all the rest, if it’s a QuantumFilm sensor from InVisage Technologies. The sensor promises to take astonishing, natural-looking HDR stills and shoot stable action video footage, at a level usually reserved for high-end DSLR cameras.

We got a chance to see the QuantumFilm technology in action at a private demo, plus learn a little more about how it works. InVisage’s QuantumFilm sensor replaces the traditional silicon CMOS sensor used in most cameras today, including those in phones. It’s thinner (0.5 micron versus the 3 micron of a conventional back-illuminated CMOS sensor), and manages light more effectively. InVisage claims it absorbs 100 percent of light, versus silicon’s 70 percent, or less “cross talk” or light leakage. It results in a higher dynamic range image that’s closer to film, with greater details, and it does everything without any sneaky software tweaks.

The clue as to how it differs from normal camera sensors is in the name. InVisage’s QuantumFilm is a brand new quantum dot film that’s applied to a chip and is suitable for use in either a digital camera or a smartphone. Voltage is applied at different degrees to adjust the dynamic range. Although we can mess around with HDR modes on our phones now, they increase noise in the final result, which isn’t the case with QuantumFilm.

Hands-on demo

What’s it like? We saw two demonstrations: One related to the way it handles light, and the other showing the effectiveness of its global shutter, which smoothes out video when shooting moving objects. The former compared an iPhone with a prototype smartphone fitted with a QuantumFilm sensor. It’s immediately obvious how much more effectively the QuantumFilm camera – the one at the bottom – handles the darker side of the box than the iPhone. Holding up a Galaxy S6 Edge Plus resulted in slightly better performance, but not at the level displayed by the QuantumFilm model.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

For the global shutter demo, another set of the same devices were suspended over a musical instrument. Plucking the strings showed how the QuantumFilm sensor’s global shutter kept the image steady and natural. The iPhone’s rolling shutter didn’t. Check out our video of the demonstration to see the difference. Again, we tried the same test with the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, and the result was somewhere in-between. It didn’t confuse the shutter in the same way, and the strings were merely fuzzy and blurry in motion, but that’s certainly not ideal.

It’s worth pointing out that both these demos were set up and performed by InVisage, and had specific conditions relevant to both problems. For example, the iPhone’s shutter speed was manually tuned to mimic typical lighting conditions, as oppose to letting the device adjust shutter speed automatically; while it exhibited the rolling shutter effect, it’s also not how most most of us use our phones in the real-world. We’ve not had the chance to try the camera out independently.

It may not be long until we do, though. InVisage told us a Chinese manufacturer has a smartphone with the QuantumFilm sensor inside ready for release in the very near future. The phone will be sold internationally, although exact details – such as the manufacturer’s name – weren’t shared. Additionally, InVisage said two of the three major DSLR camera manufacturers have also chosen to use the QuantumFilm sensor in future hardware.

QuantumFilm is an exciting move forward for smartphone photography. It doesn’t rely on clever software tricks, or a specially tuned app, to improve pictures and video — it does so with cool science and an entirely new sensor. Based on our very early impressions, the difference is noticeable in changeable light situations, but without extended tests, we can’t see just how much better the results are over software HDR enhancements. We’re keen to find out, though.

All the announcements prior to our demo with the tech

InVisage’s original announcement of QuantumFilm came soon after the company released a short film demonstrating its ability, and various technical details. The 13-megapixel sensor is tiny, measuring just 8.5mm square, and 4mm high, meaning it’ll take up only a small amount of space inside a phone. The 1.1-micron pixel sensor has three extra dynamic range settings beyond the regular CMOS sensors we’re used to, and it doesn’t use software to achieve the effect to avoid noise.

InVisage’s demo film gave us a first look at the clever electronic global shutter, improving on the standard rolling shutter to produce smoother and more stable action video, even at 2K and 4K resolutions. The sensor works with hardware running Qualcomm and MediaTek processors.

Demo film shows potential

See how QuantumCinema improves on CMOS

The short film was called Prix. It’s more than seven-minutes long, and fairly excruciating, but skip through to see how the camera deals with some challenging lighting conditions, and once the racing starts, see some smooth tracking shots.

In addition to the short film, InVisage has made a making-of film, which explains what QuantumFilm is all about. Again, it’s hard to watch thanks to all the “acting,” but there are some handy comparison images that point out QuantumFilm’s strengths over a CMOS-equipped phone.

We’ll keep you updated on InVisage’s QuantumFilm technology here, so check back often.

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