Today, Sigma officially launches three new digital cameras, the Sigma SD1 Merill, the DP1 Merill, and the DP2 Merrill. Each of these cameras wears the name “Merrill” in honor and recognition of the passion, drive and vision of Richard “Dick” Merrill, a founding father of the Foveon sensor that is at the heart of Sigma’s Digital cameras.
Prior to being a member of Foveon’s team at its founding with Carver Mead and Dick Lyon among others in 1997, Merrill worked on semiconductor research and design at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center, as well as National Semiconductor. Foveon colleagues talk warmly about Merrill as a prolific inventor, explorer, and problem-solver who owned an oscilloscope at the age of ten. His genius for tackling challenges in design and function is evidenced in the many patents awarded Merrill, and it is here, fueled by Merrill’s passion and brilliance, where so much of the story of Foveon and Sigma Digital Imaging truly unfolds.
Foveon’s first full-color digital imaging system, introduced in 1999, involved three image sensors aligned to the three exit planes for red, blue, and green light from a prism. This first device was capable of producing high-quality color images that recorded all primary colors at each pixel, but the prism manufacturing and assembly process was very complex. Guided by that singular focus–the creation of images in one shot that are comprised of three complete color image planes–was to be Foveon’s driving force throughout its evolution.
As it turned out, Dick Merrill had already explored the possibilities of employing stacked silicon layers for capturing direct RGB information at each pixel location, and had proven that it was theoretically possible to employ this natural characteristic of silicon to absorb red, green and blue wavelengths at different depths to record red, green, and blue data at each pixel location with a three-layer imaging sensor. Working alongside Foveon’s chief scientist, Dick Lyon, the first 85×85 array of stacked pixels was designed and tested. These first small-array tests proved that this new sensor design was possible, but there was still a significant amount of research, development, refinement in all steps of the process that needed to be perfected to successfully move from the realm of “theoretically possible” and into the digital camera market.
Dick Merrill was up for the challenge. Merrill’s objective was to create a structure that satisfied several criteria simultaneously:
- Ability to detect photo-generated electrons at different depths in silicon
- Professional grade color reproduction
- Manufacturable in a standard CMOS semiconductor factory
- Use of semiconductor process methods compatible with the costs and yields necessary for the demands of the competitive high technology market
Epitaxial silicon growth to build the three-layer sensors was a possible method that would accomplish Merrill’s objectives. It hadn’t been done before, but it was within the realm of possibility, although it presented serious design and engineering challenges.
Meanwhile, the imaging team at Foveon worked on the tasks to convert the information from the three silicon layers into a color image that would pass muster. When the original 2048 x 2048 x 3 layer prototype arrived from National Semiconductor, it was hooked up to a test camera running the latest firmware and software revisions for “First Light” testing. The stacked sensor worked, and was capturing and recording RAW data.
Some tweaks were made to the prism imager pipeline, and Dick Merrill, Dick Lyon, and the Foveon team had done it. The stacked sensor and the new programming was capturing and recording direct color data at every pixel location in the array. For the team, it was a good day–it worked as they’d designed it.
Then it was necessary to test the device in the real-world, to see how it would perform outside of the lab. Dick would often load up his truck for weekend test shoots. He’d pack it full of a serious amount of computer equipment with the latest software revs, and makeshift field cameras testing rigs with the latest sensor revisions alongside power inverters to make great test images in real-world situations outside of the lab.
He’d chase dawn and twilight magic light to see how the sensor would respond in the exact conditions that professional photographers would likely look for themselves. He’d build and experiment, and he really took ownership of the technology. His pictures proved the Foveon sensors worked. And by worked, that meant really worked–not just in a lab, but out there in the world. He kept everyone motivated by truly leading by example.
One of the early subjects captured by that original 2048x2048x3 Foveon sensor prototype was the CEO of Sigma Corporation, Mr. Michihiro Yamaki. Mr. Yamaki had met with Carver Mead of Foveon at Photokina 2000. Mr. Yamaki’s curiosity was piqued at the demonstration and explanation of the different imaging technology Foveon was developing.
This meeting sealed the partnership between the two companies. Sigma and Foveon worked together on developing the Sigma cameras that would house the Foveon sensors. Relatively shortly thereafter, the first Digital SLR camera equipped with a 2268 x 1512 x 3 Foveon sensor inside, the Sigma SD9, was announced on February 11, 2002.
Since 2002, Sigma and Foveon have worked together to continually refine the imaging technology and in 2008, Sigma Corporation acquired Foveon. Sadly, 2008 also marks the year when Dick Merrill passed away.
Shri Ramaswami, General Manager of Foveon, recalls Dick Merrill as a man of vision and passion:
“Dick had an excellent grasp of semiconductor technology, combined that with a newly ignited passion for imaging and built an entirely new, breakthrough imaging system. He took a personal stake in making Foveon X3 image sensor technology a reality, seeing an opportunity to make something truly unique and special. He possessed a rare combination of passion and genius that drove him to move from theory, to prototype, to product.”
And so, it is with great pride as a company that we honor the vision, drive and passion of one of the founders of Foveon, Dick Merrill, with the release of the new Merrill series of cameras, The Sigma SD1 Merrill, the Sigma DP1 Merrill, and the Sigma DP2 Merrill.