UPDATE: This story has been corrected. LDV originally quoted us a number in trillions, instead of billions.
It was a big deal when Apple added a second camera to the back of the iPhone 7 Plus last year. In five years, that will be considered quaint. By then, smartphones could sport 13 cameras, allowing them to capture 360-degree, 3D video; create complex augmented reality images onscreen; and mimic with digital processing the optical zoom and aperture effects of an SLR. That’s one of the far-out, but near-term, predictions in a new study by LDV Capital, a VC firm that invests in visual technologies such as computer vision. It polled experts at its own portfolio companies and beyond to predict that by 2022, the total number of cameras in the world will reach about 45 billion.
Next to phones, other camera-hungry products will include robots (including autonomous cars), security cameras, and smart home products like the new Amazon Echo Show, according to LDV.
That’s a lot of digital eyes on us, although we are already well-watched. “Today if you walk through New York or the major parts of San Francisco, the parks and rail stations, we’re being photographed all the time,” says Evan Nisselson, a photographer and entrepreneur who founded LDV in 2012. Not that he’s concerned. Nisselson looks forward to full-featured surveillance. “If they have facial recognition…why can’t they send me those photographs? I would like to see random photographs,” he says.
Everyone may not have that same level of enthusiasm, but Nisselson believes people will accept cameras “as long as the contextual relevance benefits me as a human,” he says. He imagines a future in which his Echo Show notices that his pants are wearing out and offers to order him a new pair. Other examples include a stove that turns off if a child steps too close to it, he says, or a front-door camera with facial recognition that allows only approved people to enter—something that’s been offered for years by companies like Chui. Of course there will be more camera-equipped refrigerators, he says, using a lens to see if the door is open or to analyze what’s inside. Fridges account for nearly all of the home devices that come with cameras today, according to IHS Technology.
Eyes And Brains
The growth of AI and the steep drop in camera prices are feeding off each other. More cameras collect more visual data for algorithms to learn from, enabling more camera-based AI services. “Ninety percent of the data AI needs to succeed, I believe, is going to be visual,” says Nisselson. Autonomous cars, for instance, could have cameras not only on the outside to watch the road but also on the inside to determine whether the driver is healthy and sober enough to take the wheel—a step beyond current systems that notice if the driver’s gaze leaves the road. “If it photographs you every day driving your car, but on the 30th day, you’re acting very abnormally, the car knows that,” says Nisselson. “The challenge will be to identify what that issue is.” The driver may be agitated because they are drinking, or maybe just nervous about a new job interview.
“Some glasses like the Snap Spectacles , they will start to grow,” says Nisselson. “And I think it’s the early days.” Video-chat app-maker Glide is one of the companies making camera-equipped bands for the Apple Watch, for instance. Cameras are integral to augmented and mixed-reality glasses like early (albeit clunky) eyewear from companies like ODG.
But what LDV calls “handheld cameras” will be the dominant product, and that increasingly means smartphone cameras. “Real cameras,” including DSLRs, made up just 1.6% of cameras sold in 2016. Nisselson wrote in 2003 about cellphone cameras replacing point and shoots. Now he talks about cellphones replacing DSLRs, thanks to those multi-camera models. Light L16, for instance, a point-and-shoot that uses 16 cameras for special effects, switching between 28mm, 70mm, and 150mm modules and computing zoom levels in between to mimic a traditional zoom lens—a souped-up version of what the iPhone 7 does with its two cameras. Eventually, camera arrays like on the L16 could be squeezed into a smartphone, says Nisselson. “If it gets 80% there it’s going to get very close to quality of a DSLR,” he says.
Augmented reality will also create a hunger for cellphone cameras, to survey your surroundings and to measure distances for a hyper version of Pokémon Go that incorporates all types of information into the view on the smartphone screen. But photography is still mainly about sharing. “The desire to capture and communicate,” says Nisselson, “is the main driver for the cameraphone to have more lenses.”