New digital photo chip could lead to higher-quality cameras

Monday, February 11th 2002, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) _ As the field of digital photography boosts performance and lowers its costs, one company hopes to shake up the industry by introducing a new chip that could double the quality of the images without doubling the price.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Foveon will announce Monday that its new X3 image sensors captures true colors as never before.

If the breakthrough technology is ever widely used in products, analysts said consumers could one day see higher-performance cameras without paying more.

The chip achieves a technological ``holy grail in digital photography,'' said Alexis Gerard, president of Future Image Inc., a digital imaging research consulting firm in San Mateo. ``And it will simplify the design of digital cameras which will reduce their costs.''

For the past few years, the camera industry has been racing to achieve higher pixels, which translates to sharper pictures. The highest-pixel point-and-shoot cameras are now at 5 megapixels.

But until now, image sensors inside the cameras can only partially capture the three primary colors _ red, green and blue. Except for high-end professional cameras which use multiple chips to carry out the task of achieving true-color capture, most digital cameras resort to using software to help it extrapolate the colors for the picture.

Foveon claims its X3 technology attains higher quality for each pixel itself by capturing the three primary colors completely and all at once. It does so by stacking three photodetectors in the silicon at each pixel.

Foveon's first camera-maker customer will be Sigma Corporation, which will use the X3 chip in one of its professional camera models, due to be introduced later this month.

But some analysts question whether the major camera manufacturers, such as Sony, Olympus, Nikon, Canon and Fuji, will want to invest in Foveon's new technology.

``Competitive market pressure will impede the penetration of the product,'' said Chris Chute, a senior analyst of the digital imaging industry for the International Data Group market research firm.

Camera makers are constantly churning out new models, and changing chip technologies will slow the production process, Chute said.

In addition, Sony is the world's leading provider of image sensors as well as the No. 1 consumer camera maker, and Chute doubts that Sony will easily give up its market position.

``Foveon will have to prove to the end user that there's value in its chips. For the average consumer, it's going to be a tough sell,'' Chute sai

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