How the iPhone’s next 3D camera signals phase two in the AR race



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An upcoming rear 3D depth camera will open up lots of feature possibilities from AR to social media to gaming.

by Mark Sullivan

Some of the hottest and upgrade-inducing features of this year’s new iPhones might come from the cameras, especially the 3D depth cameras.

Apple already put a 3D depth camera on the front of the iPhone starting with the iPhone X, but so far its applications have been relatively limited (facial recognition phone unlock, Anamoji, and selfie portrait mode). Apple will likely try to get more uses out of the front-facing depth camera, but it’s the rear-facing depth camera that’s likely to show up on an iPhone this year that could be a game-changer.

Apple has been working on a rear- or “world-facing” 3D depth camera for at least since the iPhone X development cycle in 2017, and now Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman and Debby Wu cite sources saying Apple will ship the component in an iPhone this year. My own conversations with supplier sources left me with that strong impression, too. (Apple’s chief smartphone rival, Samsung, announced a phone this week–the S10 5G–that also has a rear-facing depth camera.)

A recent presentation given at the Photonics West conference by Lumentum (the supplier of the laser in the iPhone’s True Depth camera system) showed some of the groovy 3D-sensing features that might become possible in future iPhones.

Better “Portrait” mode. First of all, a rear-facing depth camera would assist the wide angle and telephoto lenses in making the bokeh effect in Portrait mode look a lot better. The results might look more like the background blurring effect created by expensive 35mm cameras.

AR will start to matter. Apple is excited about augmented reality (AR) and got an early start on it by releasing to developers its ARKitdevelopment framework in 2017. So far ARKit apps have had to rely on the iPhone’s 2D cameras to place digital objects within real spaces (as seen through the iPhone camera). Software is used to estimate the relative distances of objects from the cameras. The results have been good but not great.

[Below, an example of AR using Magic Leap’s system]

Ashley Park