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Monday - August 22, 2022

Stabilizing Mobile Photography with Miniature Actuators

For most consumers today, it’s tough to imagine life before the smartphone— let alone life before the camera phone. Even at the lower end of the price and quality spectrum, any modern smartphone has camera capabilities that would’ve seemed impossible just 20 years ago outside the world of dedicated SLR and DSLR cameras.

At the midrange and higher ends, the modern smartphone camera owes much of its capability to produce clear, crisp images and video to autofocus and optical image stabilization, or OIS.

The post below is a brief history of the smartphone camera, with a focus on the ways that OIS and miniature actuators have transformed the last few generations of smartphone camera technology.

1999: The First Camera Phone

Japanese manufacturer Kyocera was the first to market with a consumer phone that had camera and video capability. The VP-210 was available only in Japan and significantly predated the smartphone era (though it had basic email capability and could transmit photos and videos across the PHS network).

Not surprisingly, its color photos and video were of exceedingly low quality by today’s standards, just 0.11 megapixels (MP). Nevertheless, the groundbreaking device proved what was possible in a mobile phone.

Mid 2000s: Steady Evolution

By the mid 2000s, bygone brands like Grundig and household names like Samsung continued to evolve the phone camera. The Grundig Mobile X5000 had a 6MP image sensor, and the Samsung Memoir (as much a point-and-shoot camera as it was an early Android smartphone) boasted an 8MP sensor.

Still, quality lagged behind conventional digital photography in significant ways — largely due to the lack of optical image stabilization and the small apertures necessary in such compact devices.

Early 2010s: HD Quality and Higher Megapixel Sensors

By the turn of the decade and a few years following, smartphone makers gradually increased resolution capabilities. During this era HD quality video first became possible (notably with the iPhone 4S). Sensors increased their MP count, and makers included other features to improve quality at comparable MP count. Larger apertures, infrared filters, and a more expensive back-illuminated CMOS sensor all contributed to improved image and video quality.

Passive autofocus also became commonplace during this era, improving the quality and focus of images over earlier smartphones.

The smartphone touchscreen also became dominant in the late 2000s/early 2010s, opening up a new world of touch-based controls that worked with the software processing elements (such as HDR) in iOS and Android.

During this era the first devices featuring optical image stabilization hit the market (the Nokia Lumia 920 being the first).

Mid 2010s: Enter Optical Image Stabilization

By the mid 2010s, the smartphone camera race was on. Phone makers began adding dual, then triple (and beyond) lenses, ever-larger sensors, optical zoom, and more. The first 4K video capable phones arrived during this time, and by 2014, at least 15 higher-end phones had implemented optical image stabilization.

Optical image stabilization, or OIS, was a significant development in smartphone camera technology because the lenses were so small and compact. OIS actuators use a voice coil motor (VCM) that drive the camera’s autofocus and image stabilization mechanisms, compensating for motion from hand movements or other factors. These miniature actuators physically adjust the lens placement to keep the subject matter in focus.

OIS was in some cases a differentiating factor or selling point, such as in the iPhone 6 Plus (but not the vanilla iPhone 6).

Late 2010s to Today: OIS Actuator and AF Actuator Tech, Powerful Software Processing

Smartphone cameras have continued to evolve at a stunning pace thanks to the confluence of multiple technologies, some hardware based and others resulting from software and operating system improvements (along with the associated processor improvements in successive years of smartphone models).

Optical image stabilization remains a crucial component in higher-end and midrange smartphone cameras, with AF actuator and OIS actuator tech keeping images and video in better focus even in subpar conditions.

Phone manufacturers continued adding more and varied cameras or lens types, with modern flagship or “Pro” phones including a standard, telephoto, and wide-angle or ultrawide, and perhaps a macro sensor (along with a depth sensor).

Notably, smartphone operating systems iOS and Android (along with manufacturer-specific camera software in the case of some Android phones) drastically improve the results that smartphone cameras can produce thanks to a wide range of hardware- and software-based processing. From low-light and dark modes to portrait effects and machine learning-powered photo editing, today’s mobile photographers enjoy more flexibility and power than ever before.

Modern Smartphone Cameras Require Modern Manufacturing Solutions

The rate of new technology development in the smartphone industry is aggressive, with many brands launching new flagships every year. As lenses continue to grow in size and phones continue to thin out otherwise, the design requirements are demanding.

Today, ultra-miniature actuators are a necessity, and is the ability for a manufacturing partner to adapt quickly. High volume manufacturing is a must, along with the ability to design custom solutions that suit specific application requirements.

MinebeaMitsumi is proud to serve the consumer electronics industry by producing precision components at high volumes. Our vertically integrated manufacturing process is highly efficient, allowing us to pivot to meet the needs of any customer — no matter how small or large.

Explore our latest series of OIS actuator for smartphone cameras.

Fernando Palarca
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