From smartphones to cars to IoT devices, cameras are mushrooming at a pretty unprecedented scale.
And that in turn is creating opportunities for a wide array of tech companies, including some that you might not expect.
Here’s a big-picture look at companies directly or indirectly benefiting as cameras — and with them, the tools needed to manipulate and make sense out of what they’re recording — continue proliferating.
1. Image Sensor Suppliers
As camera adoption grows in various end-markets, suppliers of image sensor chips are naturally getting a sales boost. Last month, Bloomberg reported that Sony’s (SNE) large image sensor unit was working around the clock to keep up with demand. The fact that Apple (AAPL) and Huawei, two of Sony’s biggest image sensor clients, have been upping camera counts for high-volume phones likely has a lot to do with Sony’s supply constraints.
Samsung is also a major image sensor supplier; as one might expect, Samsung’s phone unit, which is also upping camera counts for high-volume phones, is a major client. ON Semiconductor (ON) — previously mentioned as a stock idea for risk-sensitive investors — has a fast-growing image sensor business that services auto and industrial/IoT end-markets, and which has benefited from growing adoption of driver-assistance systems featuring multiple cameras.
2. Time-of-Flight (ToF) Sensor Suppliers
ToF sensors use infrared light to measure the distance between a camera and an object, and by doing so create depth maps of the objects. This enables the creation of 3D models of captured objects by phones and other devices, models that can then be used by a variety of apps.
ToF sensors have begun appearing in some high-end Android iPhones, and Apple’s 2020 flagship iPhones are expected to contain one as well. Sensor suppliers include Sony, STMicroelectronics (STM) , Texas Instruments (TXN) , Analog Devices (ADI) and Austria’s AMS AG.
3. Image Processor Suppliers
Though its sales to GoPro aren’t what they used to be, Ambarella (AMBA) has seen sales of its image processors within the security camera and (to a lesser extent) automotive markets soar over the last couple of years. The potential strategic value of Ambarella’s image-processing IP to a larger chip developer is a big reason why it has often been the subject of buyout speculation.
Nvidia’s (NVDA) chips are — with the help of trained AI/deep learning models — used within cloud and edge servers to analyze images taken by everything from smartphone cameras to factory equipment, and is also deployed within cars and robots (among other things) to perform local image analysis. Likewise, Intel’s (INTC) CPUs and FPGAs are often used for image-analysis within data centers, and — via its Mobileye ADAS processor unit and Movidius vision processor unit — also sells chips tailored for on-device image-processing.
4. Social Media and Messaging Platforms
Needless to say, social media and messaging platforms have benefited as consumers become more hooked on both taking and sharing photos and videos. Indeed, two major platforms — Snap Inc.’s (SNAP) Snapchat and Facebook’s (FB) Instagram — largely revolve around photo and video-sharing.
Going forward, the spread of ToF sensors could lead more user-generated augmented reality content to find its way into photos and videos shared on social and messaging platforms. For its part, Snapchat has for years been monetizing AR lenses that can be added to user-generated content.
5. Cloud Service Providers
Amazon.com (AMZN) , Microsoft (MSFT) and Alphabet/Google’s (GOOGL) public cloud platforms offer programming interfaces (APIs) meant to help apps and cloud services perform various types of machine learning-based image analysis. Google’s machine learning APIs (for image-analysis as well as other activities) have been cited by research firms as a key competitive strength for its public cloud, while Microsoft has seen good traction for cloud services that can run trained machine learning models at the network edge.
6. Smartphone OEMs
To the extent that camera advances motivate consumers to upgrade their phones more frequently and/or pay more for a phone when they do upgrade, they’re a positive for smartphone OEMs who have been dealing with lengthening upgrade cycles in recent years.
Along with battery life improvements, camera advances were one of the main selling points for the iPhone 11 Pro, whose sales to date have been better than feared. And from the looks of things, cameras will also be a major selling point for Samsung’s 2020 flagship phones.
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