Always-on smartphone cameras are coming

In the early 1980s, American singer Rockwell released his only chart-topping single, “Someone is watching meWith the backing vocals of Michael and Jermaine Jackson, the song made a rather catchy hit out of its protagonist’s deeply paranoid delusions. But if it had been released in 2022 instead, those same feelings of paranoia might have sounded more rational. thanks to recent news from wireless technology giant Qualcomm.

During a deep dive into his next Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 system on a chip (SoC) at the recent Snapdragon Tech Summit 2021, Qualcomm detailed the latest iteration of the chip and its Spectra Image Signal Processors (ISP). The SoC 8G1 is likely to power many of the next generations of Android flagships, and to be fair to Qualcomm, it has a lot of cool new features. But among its updates you’ll also find a very controversial change: support for “always-on” cameras.

Qualcomm recognizes that this is a divisive characteristic

The “detection hub” is the part of the new Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 that activates the always-on camera. Qualcomm

The company clearly recognizes the potential for privacy concerns, as in detailing the image signal processors located in the 8G1 SoC, it has made an effort to distinguish the always-on ISP from the rest. It took nearly 45 minutes after detailing the three on-demand ISPs before Qualcomm even mentioned the existence of this fourth still-connected ISP.

A lengthy discussion of security has revealingly separated the two ISP deep dives. And even after that mention finally arrived, the new all-seeing ISP has been described in fuzzy and reassuring terms as “hidden in the detection hub for maximum security.” An accompanying graphic also gave the still-active ISP a small, seemingly insignificant block in the system topology, located away from other ISPs that the company would likely prefer you to pay attention to.

There is a potential security benefit, but at what cost?

Qualcomm was quick to point out the convenience potential of an always-on camera, noting in a video produced on glossy paper that it could be used to unlock your phone completely hands-free. And in all fairness, something that makes unlocking your phone less painful means you might be more likely to use a screen lock in the first place, potentially improving your security.

But this gain must be outweighed by the potential drawbacks, and they are significant. An always-on camera can provide access to a great deal of information about you and your surroundings. While we’re sure Qualcomm and its manufacturing partners have good intentions and intend to limit the function to things like locking and unlocking your phone, security holes do occur. If or when a hacker does manage to get their hands on this stream of data, a little more convenience might seem a little more trivial.

And there is also a precedent to consider. While this generation of technology is proven to be safe and used fully responsibly, it lays the groundwork by first standardizing the idea of ​​an always-on camera. Future versions allowing new uses for always-on cameras could also reset the window to what is acceptable when it comes to allowing third parties to use that always-on video stream or the information that could be gleaned from it. inside its frame.

It’s impressive in other ways

Snapdragon 8 Gen 1
The new chipset will also allow the capture of 18-bit RAW images. Qualcomm

Besides its still active internet service provider, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 certainly impresses with its other improvements in still and video capture. Qualcomm’s vice president of product management Judd Jeape describes it as “the biggest leap forward we’ve made behind closed doors, period.”

The SoC 8G1 would be the first smartphone chipset to switch from 14-bit to 18-bit ISPs, allowing not only greater dynamic range and smoother color gradients, but also 18-bit RAW output. Among all active cameras, the 8G1 SoC can process up to 3.2 gigapixels of data per second, a rate up 19% from the previous generation and claimed to be the fastest on mobile. And with a resolution of 12 megapixels, the SoC can process 240 photos per second.

Its new “Mega Multi-Frame Engine” promises better night shots with improved computer photography algorithms capable of combining 30 18-bit images of source data, more than a five-fold increase in data from the Snapdragon 888’s six 14-bit images. And it does this while tracking movement at each pixel location, where the previous generation operated at just 1/4 linear resolution.

Huge improvements for face detection and video capture

The 300-point AI-based algorithms, up from 115 points in Snapdragon 888, now allow more accurate real-time face detection, which in turn can lead to better autofocus and exposure performance. Yet despite processing more data, face detection performance would be 300% better and the system can operate at light levels as low as 0.5 lux (moonlight is roughly equivalent to 1 lux) .

Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 can now record 8K HDR video and can record up to 64 megapixels on the sensor at 30 fps, allowing both electronic image stabilization (with cropping) and high-resolution stills during shooting. video capture. Updated HDR calculation algorithms allow three exposures per frame instead of two, and the ISP can now capture HDR streams from two cameras at a time, allowing smoother transfers between cameras.

Better efficiency, but bokeh errors are still a problem

When recording in HDR10 + format, the SoC 8G1 is twice as energy efficient as the previous generation. It can now also correct chromatic aberration in still images or real-time video, and supports a artificial bokeh effect for video capture also. It looks pretty pretty at first glance, but on closer inspection it suffers from artifacts on the outskirts of your subject and some obvious mistakes as well. remain noticeable in still images.

Nonetheless, some weaknesses in ArcSoft-derived bokeh algorithms outside of this new SoC clearly have a lot to offer. And it’s important to note that its one really splitting feature – the always-on camera – could potentially be disabled in software by design or better yet, disabled by default on the hardware side by Qualcomm. (And Qualcomm’s vice president of product management, Judd Heape, told the edge that the company is open to this.)

Looking forward

As for whether or not these new features outweigh the potential, if not the likelihood, that some manufacturers will now start shipping their phones with cameras always on… well, in the next few months that is in the works. going to become academic. At the time of this writing through Android Authority, no less than 10 manufacturers have announced plans to start shipping new flagships based on the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset.

The first deliveries – and with them, the departure of the genie from his bottle – should arrive in the first quarter of 2022.

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