Sony wants to make cameras smarter with an onboard A.I. chip

Over the last few years, tech companies such as Google have turned to machine learning to push the limits of what a camera can do without bulky hardware. Now, Sony, that dominates more than half of the image processing market, is throwing its hat in the ring with two new sensors that come equipped with an onboard A.I. chip.

Officially called the IMX500 and IMX501, Sony says these new 12.3-megapixel sensors tackle several obstacles of how artificial intelligence is today applied to camera data. Since they have a built-in chip for the purpose, the Japan-based manufacturer claims its sensors eliminate the “need for high-performance processors or external memory” and can deliver results much quicker compared to when cameras have to transfer the metadata first to an external system.

Sony’s latest sensors run the image signals they capture natively on a separate logic chip and only beam out the extracted metadata. As the image information never itself leaves the sensor, Sony is also promising a more secure and private experience.

“These products expand the opportunities to develop A.I.-equipped cameras, enabling a diverse range of applications in the retail and industrial equipment industries and contributing to building optimal systems that link with the cloud,” the company wrote in a blog post.

However, you won’t find this technology on consumer products such as phones and handheld cameras just yet. Instead, these new sensors, for now, will be restricted for commercial purposes such as surveillance cameras and smart retail spaces that demand complex computer vision architectures such as Amazon Go.

Since Sony’s sensors can process data in real time, they won’t have to transfer every piece of footage the camera records. So for instance, at a cashier-less supermarket, the camera will only upload a particular aisle’s videos when there’s some activity instead of constantly transferring it for another A.I. computer to process — resulting in a dramatic conservation in data output and cloud servers.

Sony told Engadget that the sensors can perform “light machine learning tasks” like keeping track of the number of customers entering a store or identifying objects. Therefore, they won’t replace existing camera modules just yet. But it’s clear Sony will push ahead with more powerful and capable of A.I. sensors in the future. Sony says it has already sent sample kits to partners, so devices powered by them won’t most likely arrive before 2021.

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