iPhone job openings portend plenoptic camera, other major developments
posted Friday, March 14, 2014 at 6:03 PM EDT
iPhones already take a huge percentage of the world’s photos, but Apple looks ready to dive even deeper into camera development—and it might be quite the step forward.
Apple Insider found about two dozen new positions available in the company’s camera division, mostly calling for hardware and software engineers. Open gigs include “sensor design, lens metrology, camera module integration, mechanical engineering, firmware, and computational imaging software,” according to the Apple Insider post.
Though the last few iPhone models take great snapshots and solid video, other smartphones have started to implement newer, flashier photography features. Nokia PureView phones pull off all sorts of nifty computational tricks like zoom and refocusing, thanks to relatively big sensors with tons of pixels. 4K video has already or will soon be appearing in Samsung, Sony, and LG phones.
Perhaps Apple thinks it’s time to play catch-up (or leap-frog). Over the past several months, there have been a few hints that the Cupertino crew would be turning more attention toward imaging. Last fall, the company was awarded a patent for a removable micro-lens array, one of the key components in a light field or plenoptic camera (of which the Lytro is the best-known example). Around the same time, Apple acquired PrimeSense, a 3D imaging company. And a patent application filed this year describes a new take on a lens mount for mobile devices.
Reading the signs, it seems that Apple wants to design a plenoptic camera for its devices. The applications most relevant to photographers are refocusing and perspective shift, but a camera like that can also be used for real-time 3D modeling, which could play a huge part in virtual or augmented reality systems. Apple isn’t the only company making moves on this front. Toshiba has worked on a light field camera module for phones. Pelican Imaging also makes a mobile unit, called the PiCam. Google's Project Tango is also experimenting with 3D modeling in a mobile phone. Depth-sensing looks like the next big thing in mobile capture.
The Apple fans among our readers may recall reports that Steve Jobs asked "the CEO of Lytro to outline three specific things that the company would want to work on with Apple." Given that was in late 2011, drawing any timeline from Apple kremlinology is clearly fraught, but these recent hirings and acquisitions suggest plans are accelerating.