Apple awarded iPhone patent on multi-shot “super-resolution” camera system

by John Shafer

posted Friday, May 9, 2014 at 8:22 AM EST


Apple filed a new patent this week for a system that would allow the iPhone to capture “super-resolution images” without increasing the number of pixels on the sensor. The new system could mean dramatically improved image quality from the iPhone without the need for a new sensor.

Only a few years ago, camera phones had very poor image quality. They made it possible for people to capture low-quality snapshots without having to carry a “real” camera – but that was about it. Things have changed dramatically. Now, any smartphone can capture a pretty darn good photo. However, contrary to popular belief, the iPhone and other smartphone cameras still aren’t as good as the average, inexpensive point-and-shoot. Plus, we always want more and better. And Apple has figured out a pretty clever way to give iPhone users more with their “super-resolution image” concept.

The problem with smartphones is everything needs to be tiny so there isn’t a lot of space for a larger sensor. And when you cram more pixels onto a small sensor, you don’t necessarily get better image quality – just more resolution. Apple’s solution, and the subject of United States Patent Application 20140125825 is to use the iPhone’s image stabilization system and burst mode to shift the image and then combine multiple offset image captures into one “super-resolution image.” It’s a great idea and one that’s already been used in larger cameras for a few years to create in-camera HDR images. In theory, it really should deliver much better image quality with few, downsides – as long as you’re taking pictures of non-moving subjects, anyway. Because the super-resolution images need to be constructed from multiple captures, if there’s much movement in the subject, there will be some strange blurring and artifacting in the final images.

When will we see an iPhone with the super-resolution system? That’s tough to say. Technology companies file tons of patents every year and many of them never actually reach the street. Either something better comes along, or the manufacturer just wants to keep an idea out of the hands of the competition. That said, all the elements of the super-resolution concept are already available – mechanical image stabilization, high-speed burst, and software that can assemble a higher-resolution image from multiple captures. The current iPhones don’t have optical image stabilization but it’s in almost every point-and-shoot camera now, as well as a few camera phones like the HTC One and select Nokia Lumia phones. So it’s not unreasonable to expect this in the iPhone 6. We’ll just have to wait and see. 

(via Cult of Mac)