Cell phone cameras may be fun to play with, but for serious image quality, photo buffs are better off snapping shots with real digital cameras. Industry analysts predict that may all change within the next 18 months, as mobile phone camera optics continue to become more sophisticated, adding auto focus, optical zoom, and of course, upping the megapixels.

Stakes are high as the world market for mobile phone cameras is forecast to reach nearly one billion by 2009. Handset makers have already started adding 3 and 5 megapixel image sensors to phone cameras, attempting to rival the image quality of stand-alone digitals. Achieving that kind of image quality requires high-end precision optics, as well as AF and zoom capacity, to project sharp images onto the sensors.

One of the optics manufacturers trying to get in the picture is Tamron Co., based in Saitama, Japan. In February, the company demonstrated an ultra-compact AF/3X optical zoom lens module for phone cameras at the 3GSM conference in Barcelona. The module measures just 10.8 × 18.2 × 16.3 mm and is driven by piezoelectric motors from New Scale Technologies, Victor, N.Y. According to company sources, this is the smallest module yet to offer a combination AF/3X zoom lens.

Motor design consists of piezoelectric ceramics bonded to a threaded nut, with a mating screw inside. Applying electrical signals to the ceramics creates ultrasonic vibrations in the nut, causing the screw to turn and create precise linear movement in a very small space. Because of the unique design and materials, the motors can operate in extreme environments such as vacuum, cryogenic temperatures, and high magnetic fields.