Alice Camera is a smart mix of AI, high performance optics and smartphone intelligence
Launching in Summer 2022, the Alice Camera is designed to provide ‘the intelligence and user experience of a phone, but with the image quality of a DSLR’
For candid photography, the best camera for the job is the one you’re holding. For the vast majority of casual photographers, that camera is the one in your smartphone. The very first cameras appeared on commercial cell phones around the turn of the century (although, as always with technical milestones, there are multiple claims to the pioneer title). The early work of companies like Kyocera, Motorola, Samsung and even Apple opened the floodgates to what is now best called “computational photography”; relatively small sensors and lenses, combined with vastly advanced algorithms and processing to deliver the kind of images even the best DSLR cameras would struggle with.
A company believes that mobile photography could be better. While many aftermarket devices promise to improve or expand the capabilities of a smartphone lens system, Alice Camera completely bypasses the built-in sensors in favor of a custom lenses and sensor system. Billed as the “camera for creators,” the device makes bold claims for its ability to combine new and old hardware with AI-powered software.
We spoke to the company’s CEO and co-founder, Vishal Kumar, about his ambitions for the product, which will be launched this summer.
Wallpaper*: How long has the Alice Camera been in development?
Vishal Kumar: We had a proof of concept in June 2020, but I would say that the Alice Camera formally started development in September 2020 when we received an innovation grant from Innovate UK (the government research agency) that will boost our development gave and enabled us to team up and expand.
W*: What inspired the gadget?
UK: We built the Alice Camera out of frustration at the lack of innovation and usability of traditional interchangeable-lens digital cameras. Digital cameras aren’t really suited to a fast-paced content lifestyle and have been lost en masse to an explosion in smartphone camera technology. Smartphones use computational photography with an easy-to-use design, but their tiny sensors will never be enough for creators who make a living from their content, as those creators tend to care a lot about quality.
W*: What are your aspirations for the device?
UK: Our team is made up of creators, photographers and engineers, and we wanted a device with the intelligence and user experience of a phone, but with the image quality of a DSLR. We started thinking about how to redesign a new generation camera from scratch. Our solution was to combine smartphone and mirrorless camera technology with computational photography in one device, our AI camera called the Alice Camera.
W*: Does it work with any smartphone? What does the app add to the usual camera software?
UK: Yes, it works with most phones, both iOS and Android. We only use the smartphone as a display and control interface, the image processing pipeline and computational photography algorithms run on the processor in the Alice Camera. There is essentially no difference in functionality when using the Alice Camera with different phones, even relatively old ones.
Running the Alice Camera app on the user’s smartphone adds the experience of using a latest generation smartphone screen as a viewfinder for a professional interchangeable-lens optical system, and it’s quite convenient to be able to upload directly to the cloud or social media. Linking the camera so closely to the smartphone unlocks a number of improvements to the user experience and allows it to fit seamlessly into the workflow of the modern content creator.
W*: What were the main technical challenges?
UK: The design of the Alice Camera is extremely minimal compared to a traditional mirrorless DSLR camera. We have removed a lot of complexity; there aren’t too many physical buttons and there are only a handful of core electronic components. The Alice Camera is built more like a smartphone than a traditional camera, meaning we’ve redesigned the electronics from scratch.
It is specifically designed to enable advanced AI-powered computational photography algorithms on images collected by the micro four-thirds sensor.
W*: What are the specifications?
UK: The Alice Camera includes an advanced Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, similar to those found in many Android smartphones, with massive image processing capabilities, in addition to a Google Edge TPU, a special accelerator for AI algorithms, similar to those found in some Google Pixel phones. It’s a radically different design than a typical mirrorless or DSLR camera, with a greater focus on flexibility and processing power.
AI is a transformational technology for photography, it enables many things that were previously impossible and automates things that previously required skilled human intervention. It allows professional-quality post-processing to be applied to video in real time for live streaming, and allows a camera to capture images with a higher resolution and dynamic range than the optical system can.
W*: How does the camera use AI?
UK: [AI] is causing fundamental changes in the way content is created, shared and consumed, and the Alice Camera is designed to take advantage of this. We have already collected over five million images from open datasets to train our AI models. Now we are building our own proprietary image database to further train and improve our new end-to-end AI pipeline for professional imaging.
The global chip shortage has had a major impact on the entire market and we witnessed six-month delays. However, we have been in constant contact with our suppliers and have managed our supply chain for 2023.
W*: Who is the target market?
CV: The target market is revenue-generating content creators who regularly produce, edit and share content. According to a recent LinkTree report, there are now 200 million creators around the world who are monetizing their content online. These creators usually start their career with a smartphone to produce content, but as they become more famous and start taking on paid work, they tend to use entry-level mirrorless cameras to produce content.
Alice Camera’s value proposition will resonate strongly with them, as our goal is to bring them DSLR-quality content, but drastically streamline their workflow. But more and more small businesses are also interested in using professional cameras to share content. In fact, 30 percent of people who have pre-ordered an Alice Camera are small business owners or video agency owners. I