Chip Makers Are Adding 'Brains' Alongside Cameras' Eyes
By Ted Greenwald
Chip companies are adding greater smarts to cameras, spurring a new generation of machines that not only capture imagery but interpret and act on what they see.
Such advances in computer vision -- the ability to extract information from images -- can enable, say, a network of security cameras to track a package's movement. Or, in the case of Apple Inc.'s newly unveiled iPhone X, unlock a smartphone by recognizing a person's face.
Alphabet Inc.'s Nest Labs in September announced a doorbell equipped with a Qualcomm Inc. chip, a video camera and facial-recognition software that can send an alert to a Nest mobile app if it sees a familiar face.
The market for computer-vision systems is nascent, poised to expand from roughly $1 billion last year to $2.6 billion in 2021, according to International Data Corp. Emerging products such as autonomous vehicles and personal robots portend continuing growth, and Intel Corp., Qualcomm and other chip makers are jockeying to supply the brains to new machines.
"These [applications] are edging into viability," said IDC analyst Michael Palma. "Maybe not mass viability, but very, very close."
Blue River Technology, a Silicon Valley startup acquired for $305 million last month by Deere & Co., is using computer vision powered by Nvidia Corp. to help lettuce farmers boost productivity and reduce or reallocate labor costs.
Farmers tend to plant lettuce seeds densely and then thin the overcrowded sprouts using hoes, a time-consuming operation.
Blue River's See & Spray, a rig that hitches to the back of a tractor, uses up to two dozen cameras, each equipped with an Nvidia computer called Jetson, to identify individual sprouts and evaluate their distance from neighbors with quarter-inch accuracy. Those too close together get doused automatically with a precisely aimed shot of fertilizer, enough to kill an individual plant even as it nourishes the field -- no manual labor required.