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Photo Technology That Lens Itself to a Better Camera

June 23, 1997|Jonathan Weber

Two icons of American capitalism, Eastman Kodak Co. and Motorola Inc., will announce a major technology partnership today, one that should help both companies battle Japanese rivals and speed the delivery of a new generation of powerful, lightweight and inexpensive digital cameras.

But the real leader of this particular technological revolution is a tiny start-up company tucked away in a cramped La Crescenta office building. It's called Photobit, and its innovations--together with those of Kodak, Motorola and a few other companies large and small--promise to change the world in dramatic ways.

"We're going to see an explosion of cameras in people's lives," says Sabrina Kemeny, Photobit's founder. Some of them will be barely larger than a thumbnail. They'll be used for new kinds of surveillance, for videoconferencing, for amateur and professional photography, and even for assistance in parking the car. The images they record will be digitally enhanced and archived and transmitted over computer networks, for purposes that we can't even begin to imagine.

The Photobit story begins in the early 1990s, when a group of scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the main research unit of the National Aeronautics and Space Admnistration, were charged with developing better miniature cameras for spacecraft.

Existing electronic cameras were based on a sensor technology known as the charged-couple device, originally developed at Bell Laboratories in the late 1960s. CCDs have an array of cells, each representing a picture element, or pixel, and each cell converts light into an electrical charge of varying intensity. They work pretty well, but they're difficult to produce and consume a lot of power--limiting the prospects for miniaturization.

The JPL scientists, led by Eric Fossum, figured out a way to exploit advances in chip technology--mainly the dramatic shrinkage in the size of circuits--to insert a tiny amplifier into each pixel. That makes it possible to build sensors using standard computer chip-making technology known as CMOS.

The CMOS sensors don't produce as good an image as the CCDs, at least not yet. But they use far less power, they can be produced much more cheaply, and they can be readily integrated with other semiconductor devices.

It was clear from the beginning that the technology had plenty of possible commercial applications, and in the early 1990s there was also a political mandate for the national laboratories to looks for ways to improve the competitiveness of U.S. industry. So the JPL group began working with private companies, including Kodak and Bell Laboratories (now part of Lucent Technologies).

Progress was too slow for Fossum, who eventually came to believe that "maybe the most effective way [to commercialize the technology] was to start our own company." Kemeny, his wife and also a JPL researcher, left the lab to launch Photobit, and Fossum later joined her.

The new company negotiated a licensing deal with Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA, giving it the rights to the CMOS sensor technology, and Caltech also took a small equity stake in the firm. The company was self-financed, starting out as a design consultant to some of the many companies that were interested in electronic imaging.

Meanwhile, the growing power of the PC, the rise of the Internet and other developments were making electronic imaging technology more important than ever. Pictures taken with digital cameras today can easily be posted on Web sites or sent as electronic mail messages. Corporate computer networks can readily handle videoconferences between PCs. Networks are also making all kinds of new remote monitoring and surveillance applications possible.

Kodak had been watching these developments for years with a rising sense of dread. Digital technology threatened to all but destroy its lucrative film business, replacing the venerable chemical process with digital bits.

The photo giant spent most of the 1980s bumbling from diversification to restructuring and back again as it coped with growing competition and stagnant film sales. Its electronic imaging initiatives, such as the much-hyped Photo CD system for putting traditional pictures onto compact discs, were mostly halfhearted or ill-conceived.

But that began to change with the appointment of former Motorola Chief Executive George Fisher as chairman and CEO in 1993. "It's a whole new company since George Fisher came," said Michael McCreary, assistant general manager at Kodak's microelectronics technology division. "He's not afraid of hardware. Digital imaging is a separate operation, and the decisions aren't made by the film people."

The question was not whether to pursue digital imaging aggressively, but how to do it. The company decided that the CMOS sensors, not the CCDs, were the wave of the future. Kodak cut a licensing and design services agreement with Photobit, and negotiated the production venture with Motorola that it's announcing today.

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