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Nokia bets on camera tech to boost phone market share

Nokia's venture arm is investing in a California company that uses multiple lenses to create images

In a move that could bring bleeding edge digital camera technology into future Nokia smartphone models, the venture arm of the Finnish company is investing in Pelican Imaging, a Mountain View, Calif., startup.

The investment by Nokia Growth Partners in Pelican, which makes digital camera technology that uses multiple lenses to create images, is part of a bid by the mobile phone maker to stand out in the smartphone market, where its fortunes have been less than stellar, according to a report by Bloomberg.

The size of the investment by NGP hasn't been disclosed by the venture firm yet.

Nokia has made a number of moves involving imaging technology in recent months. It bought Scalado, a Swedish imaging company, last July; NGP also has invested in InVisage Technologies, a California image-sensing technology company, and Heptagon, a Singapore optics maker.

Pelican's technology uses an array of lenses rather than a single lens to capture photos. The information from the multiple viewpoints provided by the lenses gets crunched by Pelican's software to create a single, high-quality image.

The arrangement allows Pelican to reduce the thickness needed in a mobile phone to accomodate a digital camera. It also allows the byte shooter to perform some other tricks. For example, it supports "foveal imaging," a type of focus that mimics how the human eye sees things. It could also allow you to alter the focus of a photo after it's taken, a la the Lytro light-field camera.

Having a good camera in a cell phone has become important in the market, according to Ross Rubin, principle analyst with Reticle Research, consumer technology advisory firm. "The camera in our phones is the camera we're most likely to have with us," he told TechHive.

Moreover, because of the processing power packed into these phones, their cameras can perform tasks that are difficult or impossible to achieve inside a conventional digital camera, Rubin added. For example, one of the problems with shooting a bracket of images with a conventional camera for a High Dynamic Range photo is subject blur. If there's any motion in a scene you're bracketing, it will mar the HDR rendering. "With these smartphones, the processing power is so great it can take the multiple photos needed for HDR in nearly real time," Rubin said.

Nokia's investment in Pelikan may not directly translate into market share. "It's going to take execution on a whole range of factors for Nokia's smartphone share to grow significantly," Rubin said.

"A lot of that burden is on Microsoft's shoulders," he added. "If Nokia can make a strong case for the best imaging experience being on their Windows Phone," he said. "it will be an important point in their favor."

Nevertheless, despite having one of the best smartphone cameras in its Lumia 920, Nokia has been unable to gain much traction in the market, especially in the United States.


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