Smartphone cameras are of greater importance than ever before.
Of course, the convenience factor – being able to easily slip your smartphone into your pocket and snap awesome photos in a moment’s notice, no matter where you go – creates some leniency in the actual quality of the pictures smartphones usually snap. But as entry-level point-and-shoot cameras fall to the wayside, expectations for smartphones to step up and fully fill the gap are growing.
Several OEMs have focused a great deal of attention on mobile image sensing. HTC introduced UltraPixels, or simply 2µm pixels on a standard-sized smartphone image sensor, last year with the One M7. And just about every mobile manufacturer has started to shift towards higher output resolutions, typically between 13- and 21-megapixels.
Nokia has easily contributed the most to the rapid advancement of mobile image sensing. Even in the early 2000s, the Finnish company held higher-than-normal standards for its smartphone cameras. But more recently, in early 2012, it leapfrogged its competitors with a smartphone that was two parts camera and one part phone: the 808 PureView.
The 808 shipped with a 41-megapixel image sensor bolted on the back. It was capable of shooting up to 38-megapixel uncompressed images and up to 3x lossless digital zoom.
At the end of the same year, Nokia marched forward with its PureView brand, introducing the Windows Phone-powered Lumia 920, also with PureView technology. However, the 920 only shipped with an 8-megapixel camera. The significance this time was the optical image stabilization (OIS), or a mechanism that allows the lenses and image sensor to move together to provide sharp images, despite the natural shakiness of our hands. OIS aids in low-light shooting by allowing the shutter to stay open longer, thus capturing more light, while reducing blur.
This very same technology has long been used in DSLRs and high-end video recorders, and when incorporated properly, it works exceptionally well.
To show off the capabilities of OIS, Nokia created a promotional advert, which it aired at the live event I attended in New York. The shot was of a man and woman riding bicycles along a sea port. The man held a Lumia 920 up and started recording video of the woman riding alongside him and, of course, with OIS on, the video was perfectly smooth. With OIS off, the video was so shaky it was nauseating to watch.
As far as adverts go in the mobile world, this particular one from Nokia was good … too good.
Shortly after the event, the video was uploaded to YouTube, and it didn’t take long for people to notice something was not quite right about one of the cuts in the advert. As the woman drove past a trailer, a reflection of a van driving alongside the woman could be seen in the window on the trailer – a van with a man holding what appears to be a DSLR, not the Lumia 920.
In short, Nokia got burned.
It wasn’t that the Lumia 920’s camera wasn’t impressive – it was. It was that Nokia faked the video and passed off the editing and a video shot with a DSLR as being shot with the Lumia 920.
Nokia quickly issued a formal apology following the discovery, stating it was merely an attempt to show off OIS technology and what it could do, not specifically what the Lumia 920 was capable of. It also posted a video showing off OIS from a Lumia 920 prototype. As you would expect, the 920’s camera performed exceptionally well alongside video from another phone without OIS.
And as a testament to the effectiveness of OIS, LG, Sony, and others have adopted similar features in their smartphones. In other words, Nokia needlessly dropped the ball and lied to consumers. And it paid for its mistake. It was publicly shamed for some time and a lot of people were upset.
But we all learned from the experience, especially Nokia. You would also imagine other companies would take note of such an ordeal. Unfortunately, Xiaomi must have missed that story back in 2012.
Last week, the Chinese handset maker caught some serious flak after a discovery made on the Mi 3 product page. John Gruber posted on his blog, Daring Fireball, that Xiaomi had stolen copyrighted photos from several different corners of the Internet and tried to pass them off as photos taken with the Mi 3. Some of the images were from Flickr, 500px, and National Geographic.
Granted, it may be a stretch to say Xiaomi was trying to pass the photos off as ones taken with the Mi 3. That was never stated anywhere on the site, except for a section on the same page titled Beautiful pictures taken with the Mi 3.
Still, Xiaomi was using copyrighted photos, there was no disclaimer stating they weren’t taken with the Mi 3, and it was simply sloppy work.
To make matters worse, the rendered image has since been updated. Gruber grabbed a screen shot of the original image. All of the photos that were in the camera roll called to question have been updated. So, chances are, those photos were not licensed. They were stolen. High-quality images taken by professional photographers with DSLRs somehow found their way into a rendered camera roll on the Mi 3 page. Xiaomi knew what it was doing and it was sleazy, no matter how small something like this may seem.
What I’m more interested in is how Xiaomi hasn’t learned from those who have done similar things before it or how it continues to try to get away with such things. This is the Internet. If you steal, cheat, lie, or fake something, you’re probably going to get caught sooner or later. Xiaomi, especially, is under the gun. It’s under enough scrutiny as it is, being notorious for emulating Apple and Steve Jobs. Not to mention, it nabbed Google’s Hugo Barra to speed up its international expansion and just yesterday it was announced Xiaomi has become the world’s fifth-largest smartphone manufacturer.
These are not small feats. It’s time Xiaomi stops making such rookie mistakes and puts on its big boy pants. Four-years-old or not, it’s definitely doing something right. But it’s also getting a lot of things wrong.
Xiaomi, if your phone’s camera is worth showing off, show us. Prove it. Don’t go stealing the work of photographers (especially when things like Google image search exists) and trying to pass it off as your own. I want to like you, but things like this aren’t helping at all.