A Digitimes report this morning claims that Apple is working with supply chain partners to ready a time-of-flight 3D sensing camera system for the rear camera. This feature would debut in the 2020 iPhone revision.
A time-of-flight VCSEL is similar to the infrared TrueDepth camera system found in iPhones today on the front of the device, which enables Face ID. Adding such a 3D-sensing system to the back camera would enable higher-fidelity 3D photo captures, potentially opening up new augmented reality opportunities.
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This timeline is not surprising as we have heard reports from several sources previously to today that Apple is working on 3D tech for the rear camera.
In November, Ming-Chi Kuo said that Apple would roll out time-of-flight 3D rear cameras to next-generation iPads in early 2020 followed by the iPhone in the fall.
Current iPads have no sense of the third dimension when shooting photography or video from the backside. iPhones equipped with two rear cameras use the parallax offset of the lenses to approximate some depth data, allowing the device to separate foreground from background, which enables features like the Portrait camera mode.
A time-of-flight VCSEL 3D sensor would provide a much higher fidelity 3D map than what the current parallax-based approach can generate.
A ToF-system for the rear camera would not be identical to the TrueDepth camera we know today as it would have to work at longer distances to be useful. The Face ID sensor only has a range measured in inches, a 3D rear camera would need to be able to project many meters outwards into the space in front of the device.
For the 2019 iPhone, the rear camera will be upgraded to a triple-lens system but it will not feature time-of-flight 3D sensing. The additional lens is believed to be an ultrawide lens enabling a wider range of zoom when taking photos.
The Ming-Chi Kuo report said that Apple would improve the Face ID hardware in the 2019 iPhone slightly, but it would be based on fundamentally the same design. Apple will apparently include a more powerful Infrared flood illuminator, which will enable Face ID to work in more lighting conditions like bright sunlight as the higher-intensity Infrared dots projected from the phone will be able to better compete with the Infrared of the sun’s rays.