CES - No light? Take the photo anyway

Sometimes, you just don't have adequate light for your photo, even if you carry around thousands of dollars' worth of lighting equipment (which most of us don't).

Digital technology can help with that, but it can't solve the problem entirely, especially for those of us carting around a point-n-shoot digital camera on holiday trying to capture the scene at the resort after sunset or snapping pics with a mobile phone at a night-time concert.

Enter Planet82, a Korean nanotech company with a new sensor technology they call an SMPD (Single carrier Modulation Photo Detector.

Company spokespersons say the sensor is smaller than the photo chips that go into mobile phones now, and draws about as much power as CMOS sensors and much less than a standard camera's CCDs. But it is cheaper to make than CMOS because it's smaller, so Planet82 gets a higher yield per silicon wafer chip (IBM's actually doing the manufacturing).

The company demonstrated the SMPD at the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas this week, unveiling a model that can handle color for the first time. Inside the demo room were two set ups with dolls, one farther away about 12 to 15 feet, another several feet away. The black and white sensor was trained on the farther group, while the color one was nearer; both were .3 megapixel VGA models.

In ordinary light, with no processing done on the image, I could see detail on the monitor depicting what the black and white sensor picked up, in both of the dolls (one of which did a funky little dance anytime someone clapped) and the skyscraper backdrop behind them.

The picture from the color sensor was fuzzier, but the shapes of the dolls and the color grid in front of them was easy to pick out, and the grid colors were fairly true to life.

Then things got interesting. They shut the lights down so that about .1 lux was shining on the dolls farthest away. The room looked pretty darn black to me, I couldn't see the dolls at all--except on the monitor.

There, they looked nearly as sharp as they had in full light, though I could no longer make out the buildings in the backdrop. The color sensor, which was picking up only reflected light, according to the company spokesperson Joshua K. Kim, showed a much fuzzier picture. Shapes were recognizable but were definitely not as clear as what I saw from the black and white one.

But I could see things, and pick out some colors from the grid, although the image seemed to show more yellows than were in the original set up. Still, given that the image wasn't processed at all and there was practically no light on, it's an impressive first step.

The company anticipates that its black and white SMPD will make its first commercial debut this year, likely in surveillance products and also in cars equipped with night sensors, which aid drivers by showing them images on a dashboard monitor of the road ahead (or behind them, when they're backing up) in low light conditions.

Because the SMPD is cheaper than the sensors used in cars now, the technology may make its way to mainstream cars instead of being the province of higher end models. The company also says that because the SMPD reacts more quickly than current auto sensors, and can operate in full light, it will boost the quality of the experience for drivers.

The company is currently testing 2 megapixel models of its black and white and color sensors. The technology needs to improve, though, before it can make its way into cell phone cameras. Company representative Na Young Park estimates that will only happen in 2008.