Apple evaluates augmented reality for future iPhones

Apple is working on a rear-facing 3D sensor system for the iPhone in 2019, another step toward turning the handset into a leading augmented-reality device, according to sources, writes Alex Webb and Yuji Nakamura.

Apple is evaluating a different technology from the one it currently uses in the TrueDepth sensor system on the front of the iPhone X. The existing system relies on a structured-light technique that projects a pattern of 30,000 laser dots onto a user’s face and measures the distortion to generate an accurate 3-D image for authentication. The planned rear-facing sensor would instead use a time-of-flight approach that calculates the time it takes for a laser to bounce off surrounding objects to create a three-dimensional picture of the environment.

The company is expected to keep the TrueDepth system, so future iPhones will have both front and rear-facing 3D sensing capabilities.

Apple has started discussions with prospective suppliers of the new system, the sources said.

Companies manufacturing time-of-flight sensors include Infineon Technologies, Sony, STMicroelectronics, and Panasonic.

The testing of the technology is still in early stages and it could end up not being used in the final version of the phone. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

The addition of a rear-facing sensor would enable more augmented-reality applications in the iPhone.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook considers AR potentially as revolutionary as the smartphone itself. He’s talked up the technology on American television and gives it as almost much attention during earnings calls as sales growth.

“We’re already seeing things that will transform the way you work, play, connect and learn,” he said. “AR is going to change the way we use technology forever.”

Apple added a software tool called ARKit this year that made it easier for developers to make apps for the iPhone using AR.

The tool is good at identifying flat surfaces and placing virtual objects or images on them. But it struggles with vertical planes, such as walls, doors or windows, and lacks accurate depth perception, which makes it harder for digital images to interact with real things.

So if a digital tiger walks behind a real chair, the chair is still displayed behind the animal, destroying the illusion. A rear-facing 3-D sensor would help remedy that.

Production problems with the sensor array initially slowed manufacturing of the flagship smartphone, partly because the components must be assembled to a very high degree of accuracy.

Bloomberg


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