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Toshiba announces light-field focus-later camera sensor

Toshiba has announced that it is working on a camera sensor, designed for smartphones and tablets, that allows the user to change the focal point of the image after the picture has already been captured.

The image sensor works by packing 500,000 lenses each measuring just 0.03mm thick in an array over a 5mm x 7mm image sensor. When a picture is taken, the system captures not one but hundreds of images using the lens array - each one of which is set at a slightly different focal length. Using some clever software the system combines these images into a single whole which can be adjusted for focal length with the tap of a finger - allowing almost any point of the image to be brought into sharp focus, regardless of what the camera was focused on at the time.

The concept, dubbed 'light-field photography,' isn't new: Lytro offers a light-field camera that does the same trick, taking multiple images using a clever compound lens and controlling them via software in a way that allows the user to adjust the focus at a later date. The technology has its drawbacks, however, with the resolution being significantly lower than a traditional camera with the same image sensor and the focus effect being limited by the capabilities of the fixed-aperture lens.

There are also software-only products, like Akvis Refocus, which attempt to offer a similar feature, allowing the user to artificially sharpen blurred areas of an image while selectively blurring others. Even with a reasonably high quality original image, however, these rarely give a convincing effect - and certainly aren't as immediately accessible as the Lytro camera or Toshiba's creation.

Currently in the development stage, Toshiba hopes to offer the sensor to smartphone and tablet manufacturers some time later this year, allowing them to create perfectly-focused snapshots - and, the company claims, the system also works while recording video.

Thus far, no manufacturers have come forward to say they are basing a product around Toshiba's new sensor.

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