3D camera supplier jockeying for expanding market

Orbbecc 3D camera
Demands for higher levels of positional and navigational accuracy in more computing applications point to a bright future for China-based 3D camera supplier Orbbecc. (Orbbecc)

Demands for higher levels of positional and navigational accuracy in more computing applications points to a bright future for China-based 3D camera supplier Orbbecc.

Founded in 2013 by several Chinese engineers, Orbbecc is considered one of the leading global providers of 3D cameras, which are designed into systems such as robotics, gaming equipment, 3D scanning and other applications. Orbbecc competes with the likes of Intel, Apple and Microsoft, but unlike those giants, 3D cameras are the company’s primary business.”

“We are offering 3D cameras at similar prices to our competitors, but with more features and higher customization,” said David Chen, Orbbecc’s co-founder and engineering director, in a recent phone interview with FierceElectronics. 

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Orbbecc started mass producing 3D cameras in 2015, through its Shenzhen, China plant. The company’s expanding line includes camera modules that are designed to be embedded into imaging systems, such as the Astra Embedded S. But it also includes standalone 3D cameras such as the Persee, which when introduced in 2016 was reportedly the first 3D camera with a fully functioning computer.

The company showed off some its 3D cameras at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January in several technology demonstrations. For instance, the company’s Astra Mini camera provided vision capabilities for a restaurant food service robot from Bear Robotics, and was used in a AR (augmented reality) industrial training platform by Light Guide Systems.

Orbbecc considers its strong engineering expertise to be one of its strengths. The company has over 300 employees, with over 75% of its personnel involved in R&D. That focus has enabled Orbbecc to develop a strong 3D camera IP portfolio that Chen said rivals Intel and Microsoft.

Toward that end, Orbbecc develops its own ASIC chips for its cameras and is largely vertically integrated. “Our ASIC chip is optimized for lower cost hardware,” Chen said. He added, “We design the bulk of the optical system and module.”

Maintaining that control over 3D camera manufacturing is important because of the greater complexity of the camera, compared to 2D cameras. Chen said, “It is much more difficult to design a 3D camera. You have to balance performance and hardware design, taking into account accuracy, operating range, costs and power consumption. The application matters; for example, with facial recognition cost and power consumption are the biggest factors.”

Orbbecc’s engineering focus enables it to support a wide range of computer processors, which Chen claims is broader than its rivals. “We support Linux, Intel, Microsoft, and ARM processors,” he noted.

Orbbecc currently does not develop its own imaging sensors, which Chen believes is a limiting factor in achieving higher performance. “Most imaging sensors are sensitive only to short-wavelength infrared light. But lasers require a 940-nm wavelength, while available sensors work best at an 850-nm wavelength. It is difficult to find sensors at longer wavelengths that meet our cost and performance needs.”

To this end, Chen said Orbbecc is partnering with several sensor companies to develop imaging sensors capable of longer wavelength operation.

Chen said that while facial recognition applications are Orbbecc’s largest market, he foresees automotive emerging as a key future application as more vehicle systems will require 3D cameras. “We’re in talks with Tier 1 automotive suppliers for 3D cameras used in autonomous vehicles, as well as in-cabin monitoring and infotainment systems.”

Chen added that the medical arena, particularly patient monitoring systems, also holds great potential for 3D cameras.

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