History of Digital Imaging & Image Sensors

At Forza Silicon, we are the combination of unique engineering design, constant innovation and custom CMOS image sensor expertise. Customers come to us to make their most innovative product ideas a reality. Our history can be traced back to the beginning of the development of CMOS image sensors. We take pride in the partners we’ve worked with and the groundbreaking products we’ve enabled. Now, we look forward to an exciting future ahead.

Early Days of Photography: Film

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Image Source: DailyKos.com

Film, specifically Kodak film, dominated the early years of photography. In the 1880’s George Eastman founded Kodak and made photography available to “the common man.” Photography attracted virtually everyone on the planet, and a vast variety of cameras were created — from Brownies and disposables to Hasselblads and Leicas.

A look at the fantastic colors permanently captured in 70-year-old Kodachrome images, like the Boeing one here, leads easily and correctly to the conclusion that film is a near-perfect medium for the storage of images. But, Kodachrome production ended in 2009, swept aside by the convenience, flexibility, immediacy and lower cost of digital photography.

Beginning of MOS

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In the late 1960s, metal-oxide semiconductor (MOS) architecture was experimented as a basis for a new type of imaging device. These would emerge as large, two-dimensional (2D) silicon arrays, onto which light from a lens was focused. Photons of light would knock electrons from the silicon array to be read by an electronic circuit, and then to be transmitted to another location where an image could be reconstructed. The hoped-for outcome was a replacement for vacuum-tube imaging devices such as the Vidicon tube. But the early MOS processes were too variable, making it impossible to create useful imaging surfaces.

CCDs and the First Digital Camera

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Image Source: OlympusMicro.com

Steven-Sasson-mit-der-ersten-Digitalkamera-466x485-f34feb4aca415cacAbout the same time, in 1969, George Smith and Willard Boyle at AT&T’s Bell Labs conceived the charge-coupled device (CCD), a semiconductor memory concept that allowed easy manipulation of charges in silicon structures. Michael Tompsett, also at AT&T, invented the CCD image sensor that first demonstrated the electronic photography and video in use today. The first self-contained digital camera (1975) is credited to an engineer at Kodak. Using a CCD sensor, Steven Sasson built, from the Kodak parts bin, an 8-pound device that gave a black-and-white image of 0.01 megapixels.

CMOS Image Sensors Bring Efficiency

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Image Source: OlympusMicro.com

By the late 1970s, complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) architecture had become the choice for logic circuits of all types, especially complex microprocessors and memory devices. Grasping the potential, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in Pasadena, California initiated research in the early 1990s with the purpose of using CMOS as the architecture for imaging devices.

A key player in this activity was Eric Fossum. By combining active-pixel sensor (APS) technology — originally attempted much earlier in MOS — with intra-pixel charge-transfer techniques, the JPL research team was able to envision fully integrated imaging devices, complete with integrated readout circuitry and analog-to-digital conversion in one monolithic CMOS structure. It was a remarkable advance. By comparison, CCD arrays required supplemental CMOS chips to collect, count and transmit the electrons to the rest of a camera circuit.

Photobit Commercializes the New Technology

Sabrina Kemeny, a member of the JPL team, stepped away from NASA in 1995 to co-found Photobit Corporation, also in Pasadena, for the purpose of commercializing CMOS image sensors. Fossum and Barmak Mansoorian, another member of the team, soon joined her. A number of viable applications were quickly identified, ranging from medical imaging equipment to webcams. Over the next few years, dozens of camera makers began the switch to digital imaging, with nearly every camera maker fully converted by 2005. Some developed their own image sensors.

The Beginning of Forza Silicon Corporation

UntitledMicron Technology, a producer of CMOS memory devices, bought Photobit and directed the pioneering company’s efforts toward very high-volume, low-cost applications, such as cellphone cameras. At the same time, demand for sophisticated applications was growing quickly. In 2001, two key Photobit engineers, Mansoorian and Daniel Van Blerkom, co-founded Forza Silicon Corporation to pursue these opportunities, again in the CMOS imaging expertise hub of Pasadena.

Forza’s Breadth and Specialty Shape the Imaging World

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Forza has since then concentrated on the most demanding applications for CMOS focal-plane assemblies and complex readout integrated circuits (ROICs), and consequently has continued to set the technological pace. Forza image sensors lie today at the heart of robust defense applications, advanced medical systems, highly specialized movie-industry cameras and Ultra HD broadcast cameras, including the 33-megapixel CMOS sensor for NHK’s 8K unit which was introduced at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — and of dozens of other exciting applications.