Adobe offers sneak peek at photography’s future

November 15, 2006, 6:58 AM UTC
Fortune

Adobe_1

A few days ago, two of the brightest minds from Adobe Systems (ADBE)

dropped by my office to give me a rare and exciting look at what the

software maker is cooking up in its imaging labs.

In the couple of hours we spent together, I learned that Adobe doesn’t just want to revolutionize photo editing. It wants to revolutionize cameras.

My guests were Martin Newell, an Adobe Fellow in the Advanced Technology Group; and Dave Story, vice president of product development in the Digital Imaging group. I’ll highlight two groupings of technology they showed me.

The first was the beginnings of a facial identification system that could one day tell you in an instant whether a group portrait is “good” or not, based on things like whether any faces are obscured, and whether anyone is blinking, sneezing, or looking at something other than the camera.

The second was a new type of camera lens array that could presage a day when out-of-focus photos become a thing of the past. Its honeycomb design allows it to focus on multiple points in a scene at once.

(The Adobe folks emphasized that these features in ideas are not necessarily planned for a future version of Photoshop. But personally, I think if these things are cool enough for them to show off, you might expect to see them show up in some form over the next few years.)

Premium Cheese

First, the technology for perfect group pictures. Every shutterbug has had the problem: you take a couple of group photos that seem great at the time, and they even look decent in the little screen on the back of the digital camera; but once you get them home and magnify them on the computer screen, it turns out Uncle Bill is blinking in half of them, and cousin Sarah is distracted in the other half.

Adobe showed me a piece of software that could fix it. Because Adobe software can now distinguish a human face from, say, a dog or a flower, it can build software that automatically zooms in on the faces after a picture is taken, and lets you see whether people in the photo look good.

In questioning Martin and Dave, I pushed it a step further. Adobe already has software that can distinguish the human eye from other elements in a photo. Couldn’t Adobe build software that finds the faces and then automatically scores each photo based on how many people are blinking or looking directly at the camera? With wry smiles, both of them said yes, this is indeed possible.

Eyes on Everything

Another item the pair showed off was a new kind of lens. It wasn’t just one piece of glass – it was a honeycomb-like array of smaller lenses, grouped together to form a disc about the size of a dessert plate. They demonstrated how, using a lens like it, a camera could take pictures that actually focus on multiple parts of a scene at once.

What’s the benefit of that? Well, every photo would be like a couple dozen photos, each focusing on a slightly different part of the scene – so when the photo editor goes in to make changes, she can create focus in an area that had been blurry. They demonstrated the effect on a photo of the Rodin sculpture garden at Stanford University, and it was a jaw dropper.

The Adobe folks said they have no plans to make cameras or camera lenses themselves, but they are interested in helping others to build the super-lens into future cameras. If it works, it’s a safe bet it will be for professional cameras only, for the foreseeable future.

But the end of blinking in group portraits and the end of out-of-focus photos? Those are things we can all look forward to.