At the end of 2020, the Chinese smartphone manufacturer Vivo, then active in Europe for a few months, announced a strategic collaboration with the German optics giant Zeiss: just under a year after that announcement. we were in Oberkochen, an hour and a half drive from Stuttgart, to see closely what this partnership consists of.
The Zeiss brand is known by photographers and videomakers for the highest quality lenses it produces for numerous imaging brands. It is actually a global conglomerate that owes most of its revenue to other areas, such as optical technologies for semiconductor manufacturing, industrial measurement and quality control, and products for the biomedical sector.
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In any case, all activities have to do with the application of advanced optics, and obviously the partnership with Vivo makes no difference. In Oberkochen we were able to observe part of the work of the engineers assigned to the cooperation with the Chinese brand, that is the one concerning the tests on the optical groups of smartphones and the search for new imaging solutions for mobile devices. The partnership also focuses on the blending of brands: one better known in Europe (Zeiss), the other much more recognized in China, Southeast Asia and emerging markets.
The testing phase is currently an important element of the collaboration: by conducting them according to its own quality standards, Zeiss helps Vivo to improve the photographic components of smartphones with optical calibration tests. It is a real exchange of expertise e allows Vivo to reach “Zeiss certified” quality levels. To arrive at the approval of the optical units that will end up in production, Zeiss checks more than 20 different quality parameters and tests more than 150 different photographic modules with more than 5 thousand images taken per device.
The other fundamental aspect of collaboration is the co-engineering of innovative imaging solutions, with the aim of bringing the quality of photos taken with a smartphone to a higher level than the current one, which is already excellent. For example, the engineers of the two companies focused on best reproducing the bokeh (the blur in the background of a photo) of some of the most famous Zeiss lenses, such as Distagon, Biotar, Planar and Sonnar. The result of this research has already arrived in portrait mode in the Vivo X70, X70 Pro and X70 Pro Plus smartphones, presented globally in September (the arrival in Italy is scheduled for the beginning of 2022).
On the Vario Tessar optics of Vivo’s flagship, the X60 Pro Plus, the two companies have instead successfully experimented with a flare reduction technique (solar reflections or very strong lights in photos and videos): the merit in this case is some software improvements, but also e especially the application of the T * coating (it reads “t star”), a special Zeiss proprietary material used in high quality objective lenses, binoculars and precision viewfinders.
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“Mobile photography can still be improved thanks to hardware – explained Oliver Schindelbeck, senior Smartphone technology manager at Zeiss – The computational aspect is fundamental, but if the algorithm is fed a good Raw signal, i.e. clean and uncompromised data, the final result obtained through software will inevitably be better. In other words, any information that does not reach the sensor due to the quality of the lens system is lost ”.
Over the past 15 years, Zeiss engineers reminded us, the optical quality of the photographic components of smartphones has grown exponentially: “We are passed from 3 to 7 elements in the objectives, we use glass rather than plastic lenses – this is Schindelbeck’s reasoning – Let’s not underestimate the fact that new algorithms allow us to experiment with new and different lens shapes and compositions. This is why I believe that smartphone photography still has many years of development and improvement ahead of us ”.