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The Next Photography Revolution

Here comes a digital-camera chip that could change everything

By Eric Levin and Tom Tavee
Dec 1, 2002 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:03 AM


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"It's easy to have a complicated idea," Carver Mead used to tell his students at Caltech. "It's very, very hard to have a simple idea." The genius of Carver Mead is that over the past 40 years, he has had many simple ideas. More than 50 of them have been granted patents, and many involved him in the start-up of at least 20 companies, including Intel. Without the special transistors he invented, cell phones, fiber-optic networks, and satellite communications would not be ubiquitous. Last year, high-tech high priest George Gilder called him "the most important practical scientist of the late 20th century." "Nobody," Bill Gates once said, "ignores Carver Mead."

Digital cameras have relied on image sensors that can't do what color film does: record all three primary colors of light at each point in the image. Instead, each light-sensitive point in the sensor measures just one color—blue, green, or red—and complicated software in the camera calculates the missing colors. Foveon's breakthrough X3 chip solves the problem with a three-layer design that captures red, blue, and green light at each point. To demonstrate quality differences, the monarch butterfly on this page was photographed with three cameras: an $1,800 Sigma SD9 with an X3 chip; a $300 Nikon Coolpix 2500; and a $2,300 Nikon 35 mm F5 film camera. Insets show magnified detail from each camera's image.

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