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Rockwell Eyes Digital Imaging Market

Photonics Spectra
Feb 1998
Stephanie A. Weiss

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Rockwell Semiconductor Systems has entered the battle for OEM digital imaging market share armed with five new sensors and a history of military and space imaging solutions.
With that applications pedigree, you might think Rockwell is introducing a line of high-end charge-coupled devices (CCDs) for scientific applications. You would be wrong. The new sensors are based on complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chips, and they're aimed at consumer imaging markets such as digital still and video cameras and videoconferencing.
Furthermore, Rockwell's goal is not to be simply a player in this market, but to steal the market away from CCDs, according to David Escobar, product line manager for the company's Personal Imaging Div. It faces competition from electronics giants Motorola and Intel, which have licensed CMOS technology from Photobit Inc. of La Crescenta, Calif., a spin-off from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Another competitor will be VLSI Vision Ltd., an Edinburgh, UK, CMOS manufacturer with whom Rockwell has had a marketing relationship for several years. (The relationship continues, but Escobar said its evolution is the subject of negotiations.)
Interest in CMOS chips stems from several advantages they have over CCDs. The most significant has been their low manufacturing cost, which translates into a less expensive chip. The trade-off, however, has been performance; CMOS sensors have traditionally suffered from high fixed-pattern and random noise.
"When you take a CMOS imager to a customer, one of the first things they do is to make an image-quality comparison," Escobar said. "We will have performance equivalent to the CCDs on the market now."
Escobar said Rockwell can do this because in working with NASA and the military, it has solved the noise problems. The company expects to ship samples in March with signal-to-noise ratios and electron noise equivalent to CCDs, Escobar promised. (Future generations, he suggested, could offer noise specifications better than the 10-electron theoretical best of CCDs.) The sensors will offer resolutions from 352 3 288 to 960 3 800 and frame rates up to 30 fps.
Rockwell's devices may not offer this performance inexpensively. Escobar stressed that OEMs who are considering Rockwell chips should consider more than just the sensor price. Other factors, he said, were the savings in terms of integration, packaging and additional electronics that might be required to convert signals from analog to digital (standard on a Rockwell chip), reduce noise and grab images.
Escobar also did not confine the sensors to the consumer markets that the company is targeting immediately, suggesting that the sensors might also find applications in industrial and medical imaging.

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