You’ve probably seen smartphones photos that look almost as good as if they were taken with professional camera gear. It’s more than just hardware. AI features are increasingly helping people snap beautiful pictures with just a tap on their smartphones.

In 1994, Michael Deng rounded up funds from friends and family to build software that would do just that. It uses visual AI technology to improve cameras not just for phones, but for the smart cars and smart homes of our future, too.

This was the start of a 25-year journey that took Deng from Silicon Valley to China, beginning with the founding of ArcSoft and culminating in an overnight leap to billionaire status.

Deng became one of China’s three newest billionaires when his company posted dramatic gains on the country’s new Nasdaq-style Star Market. (Picture: ArcSoft)

The rise of smartphones means virtually everyone is carrying a pocket-sized camera everywhere they go. We’ve come to expect higher standards in our Instagram pictures, and handsets now come with more lenses than ever. But with a physical limit on how many cameras a 6-inch slab can carry, the next frontier to better phone photography seems to lie in AI.

Deng and his team shifted ArcSoft’s focus to mobile photography in 2004, with the hope of using computer vision technology to produce better results from tiny phone cameras. A professed photography enthusiast, Deng has a gallery on the company website dedicated to landscape and nature photography, including his own works.

One of the most common uses of AI in phone photography has to do with pictures featuring people. Apple, for instance, uses algorithms to quickly distinguish humans so the software can blur the background for portraits. Deng also believes that facial recognition serves a role in photography.

“Using facial recognition to catch criminals is definitely one direction, but I think the bigger future is still raising efficiency and creativity, and adding beauty to our lives,” he told Shanghai Securities News.

ArcSoft says its software helps phones shoot sharper and brighter photos at night, adjust for camera movement to prevent blurry pictures, and take 360-degree panoramic photos, among other features. The company counts Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo as customers. Its tech can also be found in several live streaming and photo editing apps that come with beauty filters, a ubiquitous technology in China.

Deng, who completed his PhD in St. Louis, Missouri and pursued post-doctoral research at Cambridge University, moved back to China in 2017. Today, the company employs about 500 people in offices across China, as well as in Tokyo, Dublin and California.

When China’s new tech stock market went live last month, Deng’s stakes in ArcSoft skyrocketed. A sharp surge in stock price propelled his fortune to over US$1.4 billion on the first day -- more than the net worth of Jay-Z and Beyoncé combined.

Meanwhile, ArcSoft is diversifying by venturing into products for vehicles and household appliances. Its smart car solution, for example, is designed to identify drivers to prevent theft, and detect driver fatigue by recognizing certain facial cues.

The company’s focus will remain on computer vision, though.

“The people around me often tell me that I can do this or that,” Deng said. “But I think we can’t even manage to do all the things we’re capable of doing, because there are too many potential directions for visual AI.”

“Rather than being number two or number three in every field, it’s better to do our best in one area,” he added.