In recent years, there’s been a degree of stagnation in smartphone evolution.
Screens range from OLED to AMOLED, Full HD to Ultra HD, 4K to QHD. Yet they’re all equally adept at making app content and photos appear bright and sharp on-screen.
Similarly, cameras have gradually expanded their megapixel total and aperture rating without materially improving their (already very impressive) standards of photography.
However, after years of increasingly negligible evolution, 2020 could be a year of camera revolution.
Hole-punch selfie cameras are beginning to appear, while another potential innovation involves time of flight cameras, commonly referred to as depth cameras.
Often hyphenated, and generally abbreviated to ToF, time of flight technology bounces a laser off any objects in front of it, mapping the depth of an environment before it’s captured.
This light-based sonar sibling compiles a picture of what’s being viewed through the camera lens, measuring the range of different objects with nanosecond accuracy.
In turn, that helps the camera’s software to identify specific elements which can then be blurred out for bokeh effects, or focused on for additional clarity.
Many high-end smartphones already incorporate ToF cameras, including the Samsung Galaxy S20, LG G8 ThinQ and the Huawei P30 Pro.
It’s also been widely predicted that the next iPhone will incorporate ToF technology.
But do time of flight cameras really represent a great leap forward for amateur photographers, or is this another small step in smartphone evolution?
Benefits of time of flight cameras
The more information a camera’s processor receives about the environment it’s about to photograph, the more accuracy its software can deliver in the finished picture.
This is particularly important given the modern vogue for blurred backgrounds and pin-sharp foregrounds – former staples of product photography now adopted by the selfie generation.
A ToF sensor can measure distance and volume both inside and outdoors within a fraction of a second, with sensors capable of supporting photography at 60fps.
This could simplify 3D photographs, which can already be taken on devices with video recording capabilities or dual lens cameras, via apps including Fyuse and PopPic.
Companies like ROKiT, DING and Yocophone already manufacture smartphones with 3D cameras, but these products aren’t on sale in the UK.
Another benefit of a ToF camera is its ability to focus in low light, since the infrared beams used for calculating distance to subject are just as effective in what we’d call pitch darkness.
The result is greater detail in night shots, with less grainy backgrounds or flooding from light sources.
And because those infrared beams are ideally suited to identifying and tracking (or avoiding) obstacles, ToF sensors could easily be co-opted into augmented reality services.
They could help to ensure smartphone users don’t walk into objects while studying a camera projection on their screen, for instance.
With AR expected to grow rapidly in popularity, this could underpin rising adoption of ToF technology among smartphone manufacturers and consumers alike.