Low Latency Video - Cameras

Written 2021-08-15

Tags:H264 Video NTSC 

Today's digital rolling shutter image sensors are usually a 2D array of photodiodes, often with a color filter array directly above them to produce a Bayer RGB pattern. To produce a frame, a small controller selects a row and column to select a photodiode, then connects that to a PGA(Programmable Gain Amplifier), then to an ADC(Analog to digital converter) whose output is sent over a data bus to the ISP(image signal processor, may be in another chip). Some image sensors contain an integrated ISP, but this is not common in the Raspberry Pi cameras.

The signal available at the ADC is a product of the PGA gain and the exposure time for each photodiode. If we halve the exposure time and double the gain, the picture should be about as bright, but with more noise visible, since the PGA amplifies noise too.

Internally, the camera's scanrate/framerate will create a limitation for exposure time - a 30FPS camera cannot expose each pixel for more than ~33ms, but we can usually also reduce this exposure time and keep the same framerate - this is our first latency limitation - the average signal age for a 33ms exposure time camera is ~16ms. If enough light is available, we can reduce this time and increase gain until the image is just barely not quite too noisy.

The data link to the ISP creates another limitation too - if the data link is fully saturated(always transmitting, 100% duty cycle) in a given image sensor configuration, we cannot stream pixels faster than the framerate - as soon as the last subpixel in the sensor is read, the sensor has to start streaming out the first pixel of the next frame. This creates rolling shutter artifacts due to the time delay in reading the pixels at different locations in the sensor. This isn't a direct cause of latency since each pixel is still only at most exposureTime old, but can be reduced by shortening the number of pixels sent or using a faster or wider datalink.