Hold On, Let Me Click

Date:   Thursday , March 04, 2010

With an eye on the cell phone camera market, Nethra-Imaging has designed a tiny chip to keep camera phone users engaged in a visual experience comparable to a real digital still camera. Cupertino-based startup has developed a chip for camera phones to help users take a good shot, as good as a digital still camera.

Pick it and click it. There are many ways to look at a cell phone today. Nethra Imaging’s image processor can help camera phone users experience the quality of digital still camera pictures.

Ramesh Singh places all his chips—image processors, of course, on the table with élan against a backdrop of Ansel Adams’ black and white landscapes. A tiny camera sits in the green square bringing to mind what James Bond might have used in the 1985 movie “A View to Kill” or even the 1979 “Moonraker.” But technology has brought these devices from fiction to reality, from agent 007 who took pictures in Venini Glass Factory to the hands of millions of Joe Blows who click pictures at soccer fields and parties.

To design such chips, Singh and Murty Bhavana, co-founded the Cupertino-based company Nethra Imaging in 2003. With a focus on hardware-based imaging solutions, Nethra began operations in January 2004. Bhavana developed the technology that went into Nethra’s image processors to help cell phone users take pictures, which are comparable to those of a digital still camera.

The image sensors to be launched this year will enable camera phone users to take better pictures overall and even in low light conditions, as compared to the two megapixels available in the market. The number refers to the number of pixels or dots in the sensor. A higher number is one of the factors that determine picture quality. A megapixel means one million pixels or dots.

In a cell phone market where camera functionality was introduced only a few years ago, the chip has a bright future since camera phones can replace low-end digital and disposable cameras, Singh says.

What else can a three megapixel change? Camera phones are zooming into the picture, fast becoming a trend for the young digirati, and there is no harm in entertaining this doubt: it’s only a matter of time before their “backup camera” image gets blurry in the fog of past as more slick, multifunctional versions provide the convenience of carrying one gadget that can do it all.

Nethra in Sanskrit means eyes. Singh and Bhavana work toward developing a vision for the company. While one takes care of business, the other looks into algorithms taking into consideration the user’s perspective. CEO and president, Singh, brings home a snapshot of global tastes because business is about understanding cultures. Koreans like pictures more reddish, Europeans more yellowish and Californians, maybe more greenish, he says. The vice president of marketing, Bhavana, addresses problems like, “The camera phone does not have a flash, so how does one take pictures in low light?”

In addition, the chip addresses blurriness, detects and corrects red-eye. The fundamental advantage of the Nethra image-processing pipeline is its ability to overcome the challenges presented with low light picture taking and its electronic image stabilization feature that eliminates blurry videos caused by shaky hands, Singh says.

Algorithms address the red eye problem. For example, an algorithm can detect skin and eye. Besides detecting red eyes, it can show other objects by misclassifying them as red eyes. This information can be used to either correct the red eyes in the chip itself or send the information to remove such problem areas.
Besides serving the needs of the camera phone users, this chip will allow cell phone vendors to go to market with minimal software integration as Nethra provides all the software components.

The three-megapixel image best fits the eye, Singh says. “The image processor has to overcome the artifacts created by inexpensive plastic lens along with any issues the CMOS image sensor creates. Nethra has to enable a complete camera subsystem, which means it must deliver the best algorithms in silicon and enable them with a proprietary software control system. This allows the customer to adopt Nethra’s solution with multiple camera sensors which enables production flexibility and answers time-to-market needs.”
Although camera phones are Nethra’s initial focus, it certainly is not the first time that Bhavana and Singh have worked on imaging technologies. Bhavana, 45, is an electronics and communication engineer who masterminded the algorithms for this device. He has more than 20 years of experience in the semiconductor, image processing, graphics and video industries. In this span, he provided strategic technology and marketing direction for CMOS image sensor and application-processor vendors. He also worked for NuCore Technology, a company that is heavily into imaging technology, where he successfully launched two products during his time as marketing director.

He worked on products such as notebook and PC graphics, PDAs and mobile phone cameras. As a research fellow in the 1980s, he worked on various image processing pattern recognition algorithms, which were adopted at the system level by the United States Postal Service. The technology helped sort mail by recognizing text on envelopes and directing the mail. “Pixel processing is in my blood,” he declares with the same passion with which he compares the chip to the human eye, “unlike the chip, the human eye has 120 million rods to help detect light and 6 million to 7 million cones to help detect color.”

His partner, Singh, has 22 years of experience in the semiconductor industry. An electrical engineer, Singh has sported several feathers in his thinking cap. He worked in Chips & Technologies and Rockwell Collins and S3, Inc., where he was the general manager of the Home Products Division and sales director for S3’s strategic OEM accounts (Dell, Gateway, HP/Compaq and IBM).

But more important, he is a second time entrepreneur. He co-founded MediaQ that raised more than $55 million. After delivering products for the PDA and cell phone markets, MediaQ was acquired by NVIDIA and helped launch them into the cell-phone business. Will luck follow him this time?

Singh says that besides actively focusing on being cash positive, the company hopes to drive the camera phone market in the mass-adoption of Nethra solutions by the major handset manufacturers.

Bhavana, who headed the mobile handset division at MediaQ, reiterates and says, “Nethra is out there to prove we can deliver and play with the big boys.”
The picture for Nethra’s chip looks good as several studies show that camera phones will be a rage. “Future Image forecasts 2006 mobile phone shipments to be at least 900 million units, and exceeding our earlier predictions, we expect more than 67 percent of these mobile phones to include cameras,” said Tony Henning, editor of the Mobile Imaging Report, Future Image. “Cameras in mobile phones have grown beyond their base functionality of color processing to include more sophisticated features such as image stabilization. Future features such as image analysis and recognition will require advanced image algorithms such as Nethra is addressing with its solutions.”

InfoTrends’ “Mobile Imaging Study” projects that worldwide camera phone shipments will grow from 233 million units in 2004 to 903 million units in 2010. By 2010, camera phones are expected to account for 87 percent of all mobile phone handsets shipped.
Key findings include:
The total number of images captured on camera phones will reach 228 billion by 2010, exceeding the number of photos taken on digital still cameras and film cameras combined.

For many consumers, the camera phone will be their everyday camera. Camera phones will put immense competitive pressures on one-time use cameras and low-end cameras.

The rapid growth of camera phones will create growing opportunities for printing and sharing of images. The value of camera phone photo printing will reach approximately $7 billion by 2010, approximately 60 percent of which will take place in the home.

Image messaging revenue will reach $6.8 billion by 2010, and will increasingly become a part of other value-added multimedia services.

Such findings indicate that adoption will take place as more and more people find multiple uses for their camera phones, making the gadget an indispensable part of their life.
Camera phones can serve several purposes. “I use my camera phone at many conferences, trade shows and other events,” Singh says. “Nowadays, who carries a camera if you have a camera phone that can take good image quality shots?”

The gadget comes handy in conferences when used to take pictures that match business cards, and helps remember names and faces. “Now you can easily take a picture and match it real-time to a business card,” says this astute businessman.

Another interesting phenomenon is that camera phones are not limited to adults zeroing in on budget and product features in four walls of a distant land. They are fast becoming a part of even a seven-year-old’s life revolving around tennis courts where pictures are taken as a “how to” improve shots, teasing siblings and showing performance to ever-anxious mothers and fathers.

“My daughters, 7, 11 and 14, do it all the time,” says Singh. “They even compare the video clips of an Xbox or Sony PlayStation to the video from their cell phones.”
What drives the success of a device is the ease of use. Bhavana stresses, “the golden rule for consumer electronic devices is the simpler and easier something is to use, the quicker consumers will adopt that product.”

Adoption is also driven by affordability, better image quality and mass adoption by handset guys. The curve is growing significantly for people going for higher and higher megapixels, he says.

Convergence is changing lifestyles and that, in turn, is driving a lot of these integrations. Mobile handsets are moving toward the ultra slim, mean machine that can do a variety of tasks. They are capable of MP3 playback, still and video image capture, high-speed data transmission, GPS with TV services.
But Singh has also spotted the trend that flips convergence on its head: more performance. “There is a tremendous opportunity for someone to come in and carve up a niche to be the first to truly deliver best print-quality images–this is the wild, wild west, and Nethra is well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Integration of additional technologies will further separate Nethra and recognize the company for its role in camera-phone adoption by consumers.

Nethra’s competitors are in China, Korea and Taiwan. But Singh asserts that what makes Nethra’s chip different is the fundamental architecture and the functions it serves. “Form-factors for phones are shrinking, and up to now you could put an image processor and sensor on a single chip to simply get an image – an image with not much picture quality and not even really a clear picture,” he says.

“With two and three megapixels, you can achieve better picture quality, but the devices need better image processing and the ability to autofocus to deliver better color processing and other key functions like low-light pictures and pictures of motion that are not blurred. Now, a separate image processor is needed because form-factors are shrinking, functions are expanding and the amount of image processing is growing exponentially.

This level of functionality cannot fit on the same, single die. Thus, the need for Nethra’s image processor for the camera phones.”
While big companies like Micron and Samsung can spend a lot of money to develop competitive solutions, he explains the role his company can play will be significant as well. “We are actually complimentary to all these solutions. While the trend for the camera-based cell phone is a two-chip solution (separate sensor and image processor), Nethra works closely with these companies as partners.” Handset companies don’t want to rely on one camera sensor supplier; they want to rely on multiple Nethra-type solutions. Nethra can enable multiple sensors with its image processor.

“We also can take our image processor technology and adapt it to other markets such as cameras in notebooks and Webcam applications. Skype and Vonage are becoming big.”

The future is bright. “People are expecting video. Having great low-light performance could enable the next market: surveillance.” And the 46-year-old second time entrepreneur does not shy away from exploring futuristic ideas: Nethra’s chips could be used to ensure passenger safety by providing information on the windshields of what lies in the zone in night vision or behind the car when parking parallel or reversing.

But what lies ahead for Nethra right now is selling a few million of these chips this year–“less than 5 million, more than 1 million units,” he says.

The journey has begun for Nethra, a startup that has experienced challenges and setbacks. “People were saying ‘how can you run against the Qualcomms or TIs?’ We had the same questions at MediaQ,” Singh says. “Delivering unique technology is always challenging, whether you’re a startup or a large corporation. It’s the ability to deliver this differentiation that makes a startup successful. Having the ability to respond quickly to market needs is also key. These factors, along with working closely with the customer’s requirements has positioned Nethra for its early successes.”

MediaQ experience helped them to develop their strategy right from the beginning. “This time we knew how these steps were going to happen. We had the customer relationships, and we knew how to get into product definition with customers.”

Some of the questions were answered early in how well Nethra could serve the consumers’ demands. “People can store images and move them either wirelessly or physically in a memory device. The consumer actually demands it now. Kids today use the technology. Look at all the multiplans offered by network service providers. All these devices want a personality.”

The bottom line is image processing is vital for good pictures. “The market has come to a point where it does not matter whether the solution is CCD- or CMOS-based. CCD-based cameras result in expensive, power hungry and bulky phones. Whereas with CMOS, the solution is not only cost effective but also serves the purpose. Whatever the form factor, the key is: It needs to have good resulting images. What Nethra is doing is focusing on image processors where one can look at it and say ‘I want to put a sensor or some other connectivity in it.’

“This goes back to the experience of startups ‘trying to do too much’ and also there are three factors that can play havoc. First, what is the differentiator against the top-notch players? Second, since you are working with emerging technology, ‘are you going to time it right and hit the market at the right window? Third is the trust, why would customers trust you and want to work with a startup? So those are the questions you have to answer to say ‘are you crazy to go into this market, are you going to succeed?’”
Nethra raised 14.5 million in Series A and B. “With under 14 million dollars, we managed everything from the get-go to delivering product to the street,” Singh says.
Although Singh did not mention the customers, he said that Nethra has good relations with Motorola, Sony Ericsson, LG and Samsung. “The top cell phone maker in the world, Nokia, is always tough to get in the first go round but with the relationships we have and the designs we have in place with our partners, we could even have a chance to deliver to someone like Nokia.”

Singh, who continuously draws from his MediaQ experience, has learned a few things: “The idea is that you can displace the previous product, driving the market rather than following the market. Don’t go with multiple products; that’s a sign of not knowing which one you want to go with. Live and die with one.”

Will it be a pretty picture for Nethra? The die has been cast by the determined duo Bhavana and Singh, who wait with fingers crossed, as their baby gets ready to take the first shot at the cell phone camera market.