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Micron interview

Dennis Hissink
Photokina report
Wednesday 11th, October 2006
Posted by: Dennis Hissink

While preparing the Photokina tour some of us talked about Micron and its line of sensor solutions. So after informing about Micron's activities we decided to set up a brief Q & A session with Suresh Venkatraman, director of Marketing Micron Imaging and Paul Clark, Regional Communications Manager Europe. And already after some minutes it was obvious that this company was not just playing around in the digital imaging market. It has actually come up wit great innovative ideas and a lot of Micron products we already got acquainted to; like the image sensors for camphones. What about high-speed recording? Not with 30 frames a sec., but what the heck… 5000 frames a second? The Micron guys showed us an amazing demonstration, impressive!

Micron interview

Question : I think that most people haven't heard of Micron. Can you tell us what Micron is and what your relationship is with the photography market?

Answer : Micron is one of the biggest providers of all kinds of semiconductor solutions. We make NAND Flash, CMOS sensors, DRAM and much more. We have a joint venture with Intel on DRAM and are working closely with Apple. In fact, Apple uses our products. For example, the image sensor that is used for video chat and Photobooth on the new computers is our product. Micron delivers image sensors to all kinds of camphones manufacturers all over the world. We have a market share of 38% of camera phone sensors. We are trying to enter the Digital Still Camera (DSC) market with our new CMOS sensor.

Question : Micron is a big player, so why have most people never heard of Micron before?

Answer : We make sure that our clients have a good solution - that is what we want to do. We don't need to tell everyone that they've used our product. We like to operate in the background. But it is amazing that sometimes people find out that our product has been used. If I may refer to the Mac again. Someone was telling me that he knew Micron from the image sensor in the Apple computer. That is amazing; Apple has never published this information anywhere. But the Macfreaks are dismantling all the products and so they discovered that the computers had our product in it. But in general, we focus on doing business and development and we do not need to seek big headlines in the media.

Question : What is the strength of Micron? You are making a lot of products.

Answer : For one thing, we have a lot of in-house knowledge. All our products benefit from improvements made to another product. In fact, our image sensors are made on the same production line as our memory. This helps improve the image sensor. The memory has become faster and faster as has the technology we also use for the image sensors, so that HDTV is now possible with our sensors. Everything is coming together.

Question : But the market for digital cameras is demanding for more pixels.

Answer : The DSC market has changed. First, there was a resolution growth, just as is now the case with the camphones. It started off with 2 Megapixels and is now up to 10. But the focus is changing. We focused at first on the sensor for mobile products on the one side and on high speed sensor technology on the other side. We realized that the market for mobile phones is all about mass consumption and the market for high speed technology is high end and very expansive. We transform both technologies in the new sensor. This new 5 Megapixel sensor is also capable of recording HDTV. And at the same time it is the first 5 Megapixel image sensor available for consumer products. At Micron, we focus on improving the quality of the pixel; the number of Megapixels is not that interesting anymore. I mean the lenses that are needed for 10 and higher Megapixels… this is becoming an issue.

Question : The sensor you developed is a CMOS, what is wrong with a CCD?

Answer : With the CMOS, Micron is bringing high speed to consumer products. A CCD is too slow to capture high speed images. The CMOS can be read out much faster. And we have the technology. When the CCD was developed as image sensor, the focus was on traditional cameras as a replacement for film. We are thinking about the sensor and then others can use it for their products. That is the other way around.

Question : What is the use of high speed sensors for a digital camera?

Answer : High speed capturing is very interesting for stills. Camera manufacturers can take advantage of high speed technology. With high speed capturing, decisions can be made in microseconds rather than milliseconds and then be corrected. It makes it possible to capture 100 frames and pick the best shot, just in a fraction of a second. Basically that is what is happening in mobile phones already, for instance with Nokia. The phone is very unstable to hold for picture taking. When you press the button, more shots are made. From the images an average is calculated and that is the shot you will see. But you will think you just took one shot. There is so much more possible if speed is at your side…

Question : So the sensor is getting more intelligent.

Answer : That is exactly what is happening. It is more than just resolution. More resolution leads to smaller pixels, which makes it harder to get a good image. We are working on smaller pixels however, but at the same sensitivity. We proved that a 1.4 micron pixel is possible; something no-one seemed to think was possible. We think that going even smaller is not out of the question. In fact, we have already proved that it can be done. It is not in production yet, but it can be done.

With the Micron CMOS, it is possible to make decisions in the camera. It will make the camera more intelligent. A CMOS can do much more than just capture a picture. We can correct images on the sensor itself instead of in firmware in the camera. This makes the camera much faster. We are also able to tweak the sensor. So we now have a similar discussion as that between Velvia or Kodachrome. The functionality we can add to the CMOS makes the sensor almost foolproof. A stage can be reached where all the camera manufacturer has to do is to build a box around the sensor. All the intelligence is on the sensor.

Question : We have seen all kind of sensors beside the traditional CCD for improving image quality. Amongst them are the Fujifilm Super CCD and the Foveon. Now Foveon is playing a more active role on the market again. What is your opinion on this kind of sensor?

Answer : Well, Foveon was a good solution at the time, but things have moved on. What they have done with the three layers is very interesting, but I am not sure that it is the ultimate solution. You have to control all the layers very carefully. And that is what we are doing. We control every layer of a CMOS sensor. We manufacture every part of the sensor, something that is unique. The reason why Sony was selling so many of its CCD's is that they controlled every layer of the CCD. Micron also has this advantage with CMOS.

Question : You are focusing on mobile phones now, but you are planning to get into the DSC market. Do you work together with camera manufacturers and what are the benefits?

Answer : We hope that in a couple of years we will start to get the sensor in a DSC. In regard to the DSC, we are focusing on bringing more functionality. This enables users to be more creative. We are working together with lens manufacturers on optimizing lenses in order to improve our sensor and to get it onto the market. This is particularly important with wide angle, because the rays have to fall exactly right on the sensor. A lot of the information comes from our memory technology. We cannot say anything right now about our negotiations with camera manufacturers, but things are in motion.

Question : Why did you begin concentrating on cell phones instead of the DSC?

Answer : Camera phones are now at a level where they overrule the lower range of DSC as far as quality is concerned. During my flight to Cologne I was sitting next to a photographer from National Geographic. He was used to travelling all over the world with his professional equipment. He told me that he liked taking photographs with his Nokia N80 phone because of its size and the quality for its purpose. I was amazed by this, because here was a guy with high-professional tools. But you know… it is sometimes the simplest reason why a device becomes successful. When I am thinking of a mobile, I can only say that this is a device you always carry around so you are always able to capture that special moment.

Question : Is it harder to make a sensor for camphones rather than for a digital still camera?

Answer : We started the hard way! In a small package, like a cell phone, you have to be very good. A compact design asks for special solutions. You can't simply put a better lens on it; it has to fit in the small device. That is why, for instance, digital zoom will be important in camphones. To improve quality, we matched the micro lenses on the sensor exactly to the lens. That is also why we are interacting with lens manufacturers. It is very important to make room for the camera-part if you want to have a good camphone. Most companies are just putting the camera in the phone and that is not good. Nokia is doing much better in this regard with the Nokia N80 as the phone is built around the camera. You have to design the system around the camera.

Question : The image quality is not only the sensor; you need good software as well.

Answer : That's true and we have tested our system. We do both the sensor and software and we are concentrating on the quality. I can say that we are the leader right now. Perhaps not in low costs or at volume, but I think we are the leader in regard to image quality.

Question : Micron acquired Lexar and you've said that Micron is working hard on fast memory. But Lexar is way behind SanDisk when it comes to speed on the cards.

Answer : It's true. We are in the process of getting very fast NAND Flash. But you are right when you say that SanDisk is delivering faster cards. However the speed of the card is not that important right now. The camera is the bottleneck in writing speeds. It's a combination of flash memory and the camera. But people love figures and numbers. They say that 8 Megapixels are better than 5 Megapixels, but you and I know that is not necessarily true. Instead of high speed, Lexar adds functionality to its cards that SanDisk doesn't have. A good example is the protection in the form of Locktight. It really is more than just speed.

Question : What can we expect with memory in the future?

Answer : NAND Flash will become more and more important. Take the iPod. The big version has a hard disk, but that isn't the best solution. If you leave your iPod exposed for some time in the heat of the sun, your data is at risk. Media like CD and DVD are also very unstable. We need memory that can have more than a hard disk. I think that hard disks in portable devices as an iPod and CDs and DVDs will be replaced by NAND Flash. I can even emphatically say that there will be a time when you won't have CompactFlash or Secure Digital in your camera.

Question : Thank you very much for this conversation. I am sure we will hear more of Micron with all the things you have been telling us.

Answer : Thank you too. We are regular readers of LetsGoDigital. It helps us to find out what is important in digital photography; it helps us to improve our technology. The only thing I can tell you about the future is that maybe you will not see our name very often, as we don't want to shout from the rooftops, but you will see some very nice things. Hope to see you next time around, take care!

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