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April 24, 2012

e-con Systems executive explains the reality of cameras in rugged computers

A little while ago I had an email conversation with the folks at e-con Systems. They are an embedded product development partner with significant expertise in camera solutions in the Windows CE and Windows Embedded space. The company offers a variety of lens and camera modules that can be interfaced with most of the common handheld processors from TI, Marvell, FreeStyle and others. My interest was, as I discussed in earlier blog entries, why at a time when every new smartphone includes a superb camera capable of full HD 720p or 1080p video, the cameras built into rugged devices lag so far behind.

Here is what Mr. Hari Shankkar, co-founder and VP of Business Development of e-con Systems had to say:

"We have worked with several rugged handheld manufacturers and they use our device driver development services or our camera modules. Based on this experience and our interactions with them, here are our comments:

  • There is a big difference in the way rugged computers are constructed and devices such as digital cameras or smartphone are built.
  • The bulk of the NRE effort goes to making the device rugged and only a very small percentage is left when it comes to the camera. In the case of a digital camera or a cell phone this is not the case as the cameras are given higher importance.
  • These devices are sold through tenders and it is mostly B2B (business-to-business) and not B2C (business-to-consumer) like the cell phone cameras and the digital cameras. The request for quantities is low, like a few hundred per month or per quarter. We have personally not seen these tender documents but from what we have been told, the emphasis is given more to the ruggedness than to the camera side. The camera is needed but customers are more concerned about the resolution of the pictures and whether they can capture 1D/2D barcodes with it.
  • Some of the cameras with ISPs (image signal processors, for backend digital processing) don’t work at very low temperatures; only raw sensors work at such low temperatures. This means you have to have an external ISP on the board. But some of the manufacturers prefer to have the ISP developed in software and not have any hardware ISP. The digital cameras and the cell phone cameras have ISP integrated externally for high resolutions. This is one of the reasons you don’t see a rugged computer with a 8MP or a 14MP very often. Currently, the 8MP and the 14MP are raw sensors and no one has a ISP built in.
  • The image captured by the camera from a sensor can vary between the lens choices. A glass lens will give better quality than the plastic lens. However, we see most of the vendors going with camera modules having plastic lenses which of course affects the quality of the images you are capturing.
  • As long as the end customer demand is not that great for cameras, this will be like this. We see that integration of global shutter cameras (required for capturing stills when you are capturing a fast moving object) or integration of a glass lens not in the immediate future."

So what Mr. Shankkar is saying is that a) rugged manufacturers concentrate on the basic design to the extent where the camera is usually an afterthought (and our internal examination of most rugged designs confirms that), that b) there are some image signal processing issues that complicate matters for rugged applications, and that c) in the absence of higher customer demand, the quality of imaging subsystems in rugged designs is going to remain as is.

Those are certainly logical reasons, and as a provider of imaging solutions for handhelds and other devices, Mr. Shankkar is familiar with the thought process and priorities of rugged equipment vendors. And e-con Systems certainly has a roster of very competent camera modules (see e-con Systems camera modules).

Nonetheless, I cannot help but see a widening disconnect between rugged computer manufacturers and the digital imaging industries here. Integrating the imaging quality and functionality of, say, a US$200 GoPro Hero 1080p hybrid video camera into a high-end rugged data capture device simply ought to be doable. And if I can take superb high definition pictures and 1080p HD video with a 5-ounce iPhone 4s, the same ought to be doable in a rugged handheld or tablet. Yes, it would add cost, but these are not inexpensive devices, and the precision data capture requirements of many vertical market applications deserve no less than what any smartphone camera can do.

Posted by conradb212 at April 24, 2012 10:50 PM