Smartphone cameras take to the skies

Smartphone cameras take to the skies

The latest wave in mobile cameras might fly over your head but we’ve got a slew of aviation jokes that won’t let you feel excluded. Time-of-flight sensors in multi-camera modules are the hottest buzzword in cameras this year. Smartphone manufacturers are notorious for using jargon at the time of arrival of fancy features and doing an insufficient job of detailing what they actually do. What do the Huawei P30 Pro? Samsung S10+ 5G and the upcoming Apple iPhone flagship pack that makes them levitate over the competition? Explained.

So what’s a Time of Flight sensor anyway?

Time-of-flight sensors are all the rage. ToF cameras are becoming increasingly common on phones, drones, and industrial robotics. Often trivialized as depth cameras, they map out the ambiance and create a skeletal three-dimensional representation of what lies in front of the sensor.

How does it work?

Time of Flight sensors functions on the principle of measurement of the time taken by an infrared signal to bounce off a subject. It measures the time taken by a beam of infrared light fired from the camera to return to the camera after bouncing off the objects in the scene that it’s in front of. The whole process involves the emission and measurement of a single pulse of light – there are no moving parts needed. Think of it as SONAR, or the sight of a Bat, but inside a little module that can fit in your palm.

Provided the circuitry can keep up, all this happens in a jiffy: quite literally at the speed of light. For instance, a subject that is 10 meters away, the time difference between the light leaving the camera and returning is just 66 nanoseconds. That equals a mind-boggling 16 millionth of a second or 0.00000006 sec.

Compared to similar tech such as a structured light projector system (like the one used in Apple’s FaceID), ToF technology is rather cheap. The sensors are great for real-time applications such as background blur, even in video, reaching speeds of 160 frames per second. As a bonus (like that free upgrade to first class) they use a small amount of processing power, and once distance data has been collected multiple processes can be implemented with the right algorithms.

What’s in it for me?

Scanning physical objects instantly, obstacle avoidance for consumer robotics or drones, object tracking, indoor navigation, gesture recognition on buttonless devices, 3D imaging and augmented reality (AR) experiences and now, depth mapping to cater to jump on portrait-mode hype train (nay, flight). ToF sensors have found an array of applications.

What this means for your smartphone

This generation of mobile phones has mostly come with more than one camera. For a long while, they have had two-front and rear. Now, phones often range between two and seven cameras on a single handset. While these may be telephoto lenses, wide-angle setups or monochrome sensors, the current wave is one of these sensors being a ToF unit.

The ToF camera could be used for gesture recognition – your phone might finally wave back. The depth information can help the AI software in giving the bokeh blur that the masses have shown their love for. On top of all that, the interpretations and usage scenarios by third-party apps are seemingly limitless.

Will this give my camera wings? Most likely not. ToF sensors have existed for a while, it’s only now that the industry has found viable applications for it. While it may revolutionize smartphone control down the line, it doesn’t do much more than improve the camera experience and quality by a decent bit. But hey, if it makes you look fly on Instagram, it’s all the buzz, right?

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