We heard a report in November that Apple was testing an iPhone 7 model with dual rear cameras, and a patent application published today not only confirms that Apple is indeed exploring the idea, but reveals some extremely exciting possibilities with such a setup.
The most basic of these, noted by Patently Apple, is effectively optical zoom. By fitting two separate camera modules behind the lens, and creating a single lens with both standard and telephoto sections, you’d be able to switch between two different focal lengths. For the first time, you’d be able to take a zoomed-in photo without cropping away pixels to end up with a lower-resolution image.
But the possible applications described in the patent go way beyond this …
The patent also describes several different ways in which the device could simultaneously use both camera modules. For example, one could shoot still photos while the other shoots video. Although it’s been possible to take still photos while shooting video since the iPhone 5, the stills are captured at a lower than normal resolution. With twin camera modules, you could get the maximum resolution for both.
The patent gives a specific example of this which suggests that Apple’s iMovie software could automatically blend the video and stills.
[Imagine] capturing a child extinguishing candles on a birthday cake […] In some embodiments, second camera module 3084 can be used as a telephoto camera module to zoom in on the face of the child as she is about to blow out the candles and first camera module 3082 can capture a burst of high resolution still images of her smiling face. In some embodiments, first camera module 3082 is simultaneously capturing standard 1080p 30 frames per second video of the entire group of kids gathered and singing around the cake […] As the two camera modules are synchronized in time, the still images can easily be automatically inserted at the right time in a final video stream.
Apple also describes simultaneously shooting standard speed and slo-mo video, again with the two being automatically combined in the final output. It even suggests that a single piece of filming could generate a combination of 4K video, 1080p video, slo-mo video and stills – and that these could be easily combined in editing afterwards.
The patent application gives the example of a ball game, where you might use standard video for a view of the entire play, while also capturing zoomed-in slo-mo footage of the batter striking the ball. It’s not hard to imagine iPhones owners being able to create some kick-ass videos with these kinds of techniques!
Picture-in-picture would also be possible, perhaps including 1080p zoomed-in video within a 4K video.
Some embodiments generate a synthetic result image at least in part from data of the first image and data of the second image. In some embodiments, the synthetic intermediate image has is generated by enhancing the first image using data from the second image. Some embodiments display the first image and the second image in a shared screen interface.
The dense language of the patent makes it difficult to determine all the possible applications, but some of it describes moving the lens and/or camera sensor. While Apple has so far used this approach for optical image stabilization in the iPhone 6 Plus, it may also be possible that it is working on a method of allowing users to change the focal point of a photo after it has been taken, by using combined shots from the two sensors. Apple last year acquired LinX, a company specialising in multi-lens mobile camera systems.
We of course have to insert our usual disclaimer that Apple patents way, way more things than ever make it into finished products – but there’s no doubt that this type of tech raises some incredibly exciting possibilities. Given the emphasis Apple has given to the camera in various generations of iPhone, I’d love to think that Apple is giving serious consideration to including this type of functionality into a future iPhone.
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