With smartphone sales trumping the markets, device makers have begun to ramp up their innovation efforts with features like multiple rear camera sensors, hole-punch selfie cameras, and foldable form factors. In comes the ToF Camera.
Time-of-flight (ToF) camera technology hit the headlines in 2019, looking to shake up smartphone camera functions, something that’s set to continue through 2020. But what exactly is a time-of-flight camera?
A ToF camera uses infrared light (lasers invisible to human eyes) to determine depth information – a bit like how a bat senses it surroundings. The sensor emits a light signal, which hits the subject and returns to the sensor. The time it takes to bounce back is then measured and provides depth-mapping capabilities. This provides a huge advantage over other technologies, as it can accurately measure distances in a complete scene with a single laser pulse.
In comparison to other “3D-depth range scanning” technologies available, such as a structured light camera/projector system, ToF technology is relatively cheap. The sensors can reach up to 160fps, which means they are great for real-time applications such as background blur in on-the-fly video.
Better yet, they use a small amount of processing power. And once distance data has been collected, features like object detection can be easily implemented with the right algorithms.
What can a time-of-flight camera do?
A ToF camera sensor can be used to measure distance and volume, as well as for object scanning, indoor navigation, obstacle avoidance, gesture recognition, object tracking, and reactive altimeters.
Data from the sensor can also help with 3D imaging and improving augmented reality (AR) experiences. In phones, ToF camera sensors will likely be used for 3D photography, AR, and in particular portrait mode which of course is used for so many cool pictures out there these days.
ToF cameras can better blur photo backgrounds in portrait mode, ToF cameras can also assist in low-light situations since the sensor uses infrared light to pick up “distance-to-subject”, it could help smartphones focus even in darkness.
Which phones have a ToF camera?
Huawei P30 Pro
The quad-camera setup – made in collaboration with Leica – not only implements the first 5x optical zoom periscope optic (it’s 10x with hybrid zoom), it also features standard and wide-angle optics, alongside a ToF unit and LED flash. It’s the most complete camera setup we’ve seen to date.
Samsung Galaxy S10 5G / Ultimate Edition
The extra-massive Galaxy S10 that’s kitted out to the nines is the 6.7-inch 5G edition. It brings next-level connectivity with it, but this is also the only S10 model in the series to feature a ToF camera.
Oppo RX17 Pro
The Oppo RX17 Pro provides a 25-megapixel f/2.0 on the notch at the front, while the back features a triple camera set up with a ToF sensor.
Honor View 20
Honor’s phone with the hole-punch selfie camera also houses a dual-camera setup consisting of a giant 48-megapixel unit with a “3D ToF sensor” and LED flash.
LG G8 ThinQ
The LG G8 ThinQ, announced at Mobile World Congress 2019, uses ToF camera sensor technology.
Curious about who makes time-of-flight camera sensors?
Sony makes next-generation 3D sensors with ToF technology, and the Japanese company is supposedly ramping up production after getting some interest from Apple.