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13 July 2017

Apple is adding 3D lasers to the iPhone so we can all be AR zombies

None of the iPhones yet have a 3D laser camera.
None of the iPhones yet have a 3D laser camera.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Apple announced its augmented reality development kit (ARKit) at WWDC back in June. Now, the company appears to be adding a bunch of brand-new components to the next iPhone in order to beef up the new AR platform’s capabilities.

According to a Fast Company report, Apple is trying to add a rear-facing 3D laser system to the back of the next iPhone, set to debut this fall. The sensor system would give the iPhone better depth-sensing abilities for augmented reality apps and better auto-focus for standard photography.

The report claims Apple is working to add a “vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser” (VCSEL) system that gives the phone’s camera better depth perception. It does this by calculating how long it takes for the imperceptible light to travel from your phone, to the target object, and back. 

Apple always want users to have the best experience out there, so if it can create the best augmented reality platform with the best phone for watching AR, it’s easy to imagine how they could reach the pinnacle of success in this space.

Even if you’re not into AR, the laser will also increase your camera’s auto-focus capabilities. The laser system gives your phone a more accurate and quicker way to measure objects in the frame, down to milliseconds. So, it’s basically a win for everyone. 

Current iPhones use something called “focus pixels,” which is also known as phase detection. This is a complicated process where your phone splits up incoming light into sets of images and compares them to determine where an object is, and how to focus on it.

If the technology is ready in time, the next iPhone won’t be the first smartphone to boast laser auto-focus. The OnePlus 2, Nexus PX, HTC 10, and LG V10 are just a couple of the others with similar features. But iPhone users should still be happy Apple might start using the same technology. 

A 3D scanning subsystem has been rumored since February when KGI analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reported on it. That system reportedly focused on using the iPhone 8’s front-facing camera as a replacement for the Touch ID. But it now looks like 3D sensing might be coming to the rear-facing camera, too.

Apple engineers have been stumped by a few different features already, so who knows if this one will actually make it into the iPhone 8. ARKit will be available to everyone when iOS 11 becomes publicly available in the fall, so it would be ideal for both that and an AR laser armed iPhone 8 to roll out at the same time.

But if that’s not the case, hopefully things will be straightened out by the release of the 2018 iPhone — and by then hopefully we’ll all be able to walk around aimlessly looking at the world filtered through our iPhone screens.

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