Samsung intends to develop image sensors with a resolution beyond that of the human visual system. But are we likely to see these inside our smartphones anytime soon?

Camera manufacturers haven’t quite abandoned attempts to outdo each other with high-resolution image sensors, although the action here has undoubtedly slowed in the past few years in favor of other pursuits.

Most of this focus has been on developing mirrorless cameras to match, and surpass, previously dominant DSLRs. And now, with sophisticated hybrid autofocusing systems inside these as standard, together with 4K video firmly in place and both 6K and 8K video capabilities starting to arrive, not to mention fast-growing lens collections alongside, mirrorless technology is the obvious choice for novice and professional photographers alike.

Even so, cameras continue to be released with more populated sensors than ever, and smartphone manufacturers are partly responsible for keeping people fascinated with how high these megapixel counts can go.

South Korean electronics giant Samsung, which once carried a range of conventional camera lines but pulled out of the market a few years ago, had already announced an ISOCELL Bright HM1 108MP sensor intended for smartphones back in 2019 (above), which is considerably higher in resolution than sensors inside all but medium format cameras.

But a press release on the company’s website this week that suggests it’s aiming for a 600MP alternative reveals much grander ambitions.

So what are we to make of this? Is this an act of one-upmanship taken to a seemingly absurd new level, or something that actually makes sense for photographers? Could we start to see such sensors incorporated into smartphones as standard?

600MP – for all

While Samsung makes frequent references to smartphone sensors in the press release, it also cites a number of other applications for sensor technology, such as autonomous vehicles, drones and the Internet of Things (IoT). It even goes as far as talking about the possibility of sensors that register smell and taste, just to muddy its exact intentions even further.

So, the sub-heading under which much of this appears, “Aiming for 600MP for all,” may well be interpreted as a sensor destined for use inside a commercially available smartphone, or alternatively one that would benefit people more widely when used elsewhere. The obfuscation here, of course, is deliberate, allowing Samsung to keep everyone interested and competitors alert, without specifically tying it to the development of a particular product or area.

The press release finishes with the following: “Through relentless innovation, we are determined to open up endless possibilities in pixel technologies that might even deliver image sensors that can capture more detail than the human eye, which is often said to be in the 500MP region.” The language used here seems to suggest that while the company may be looking to develop such a sensor, it may still be some time before we see it materialize in a finished product.

Samsung supplies parts to other brands too, so it’s possible that if such a sensor is included inside a smartphone, it may first surface in a model from a different manufacturer. This was the case with the aforementioned 108MP sensor, which first appeared in the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 before being included in Samsung’s own S20 family of smartphones, although this was presumably due to Xiaomi being involved in the development of that sensor to begin with.

Do we need it?

Such lofty figures make it easy to forget that the sensors inside current smartphones have a pixel count that’s nowhere near this figure. Huawei’s current P40 Pro flagship has a 50MP sensor, for example, while Apple’s top-end iPhone 11 Pro doesn’t go beyond 12MP. So, at least in terms of resolution alone, Samsung is already comfortably ahead.

But high-resolution sensors inside smartphones are about more than just capturing highly detailed images.

They can bring new possibilities to zooming, and boost resolutions available to videographers too. They also have the added flexibility of allowing pixels to be combined, trading off resolution for better control over image noise, which is ideal when the photographer is capturing images in more testing conditions. And here, using sensors with a particularly high resolution means that such a trade-off can still result in an image at a respectably high resolution.

The challenges of designing such a sensor must be great, and not only physically; processing all this information at speed is a feat in itself. But one wouldn’t imagine Samsung would release such a statement if it wasn’t confident that it could do so. Indeed, it may even be further along in the process that it is letting on, although where it actually ends up is something only the company knows for now.

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