Sony announces next-generation image sensors for smartphones, digital cameras

The Japanese tech giant says its new sensors will take better pictures while cutting manufacturing costs and chip size

Sony said Monday it has developed new technology for the tiny imaging chips that power cameras in portable devices, which will allow for clearer photographs while using less space and cutting manufacturing costs.

The company said it has developed a method for building CMOS sensors, widely used in mobile phones and digital cameras, that will reduce their surface area and allow imaging circuitry to be produced separately from the supporting logic. Sony said it will also add new technology to reduce picture distortion in dark scenes and allow videos to capture a wider range of light.

Sample shipments of image sensors that use the new manufacturing method will begin from March, with mass production to start in the fall. The new imaging technologies will be introduced into broad production late this year or early next, the company said.

"Initially we will work to insure that these sensors can be used in all smartphones," said Yasuhiro Ueda, an executive in Sony's image sensor division. "After we have achieved success with phones, we are planning to expand into areas such as audio-visual products, surveillance and manufacturing."

Ueda spoke to reporters at a press conference in Tokyo, where the company showed demonstrations of the clearer images and video it said can be produced with the new chips.

While Sony has an extensive line of digital cameras and smartphones of its own, it is also a major supplier of advanced image sensors for such products. Teardown reports have shown that the company's imaging chips are used in the iPhone 4S, and Apple listed Sony as a supplier in its corporate responsibility report issued earlier this month.

Sony's new manufacturing process layers image sensors on top of supporting logic using separate, stacked chips, as opposed to the current method of arraying both imaging and logic side by side on the same chip. This will create sensors with a smaller area while giving more space to processing logic, and allow for the two components to be produced independently.

Ueda said Sony could outsource the logic portion while focusing more on the image sensors, one of its strengths.

The company also said it would add white-light image sensors to the traditional red, green and blue found on such chips, providing better clarity to photos taken in low lighting. It will also increase the dynamic range of video recordings, allowing light sources of varying brightness to be captured in the same scene.

Sony has rarely held press conferences for its raw technology and components in the past, focusing instead on complete consumer products. But it is making an effort to maintain its reputation as a cutting-edge tech company as it gives up market share to massive rivals like Samsung and innovators like Apple.

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Jay Alabaster

IDG News Service

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