Apple granted two patents for interchangeable iPhone camera lenses

in General Discussion edited January 2014
Apple on Tuesday was issued two patents covering different methods of attaching lenses and camera modules to a portable electronic device, including a magnetic solution that incorporates a motor for physical optics adjustments.

Illustration from Apple's '369 patent. | Source: USPTO

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Apple U.S. Patent No. 8,638,369 for a "Back panel for a portable electronic device with different camera lens options" and No. 8,639,106 for a "Magnetic add-on lenses with alignment ridge."

AppleInsider previously covered the '369 patent when it was first published as an application in 2012. The property as issued describes a portable electronic device, like an iPhone, that features an imaging subsystem and removable panel with optical components.

In practice, the subsystem would form the basis of a camera system, meaning the imaging sensor and a lens. The removable case portion includes components that can substantially change the optical characteristics of the subsystem. A simple example would be a wide-angle lens attachment, while more sophisticated embodiments cover electrical modules for image stabilization and zoom.

Some embodiments call for the panel to connect to the device's power supply to run various sensors and components for optical image stabilization, optical zoom and mechanical shutter functions.

The granted patent was filed for in 2010 and credits Richard Tsai as its inventor.

Apple's second camera-related patent is a new publication and covers a magnetically-attachable camera module that fits on to an iPhone or portable electronic housing in order to extend the device's on-board imaging capabilities.


According to the document, an alignment feature incorporated into the device housing allows for a separate camera add-on module to be attached in line with the on-board system's optical axis. Two separate techniques of attaching the module are described. In the first, the alignment feature is fixed within the aperture in the housing, much like a modern DSLR. The second embodiment has the alignment mechanism fitted to the camera module in alignment with the camera optics.


In addition to the physical engagement surface, the module and attachment carry magnets to ensure positive locking. In the illustration above, which shows a horizontally-configured telephoto lens, magnetic attachment points would be preferable to other techniques given the long structure.

The separate lens assembly may include one or more moveable elements that are moved by a voice coil motor. The VCM's wire coil is wound around the lens element, while permanent magnets surround the assembly. When electrical current is passed through the coil, a controlled magnetic field is created and can therefore move the lens assembly in relation to the static magnet poles.


Configured correctly, the VCM can be used in a number of applications, including optical image stabilization, autofocus and zoom, among others. In addition, the documents points out the detachable lens assembly can support various iterations, such as a module that implements a light pipe to direct light from the iPhone's flash to a ring light structure.


As seen above, even three-lens configurations like those seen by aftermarket case makers can be attached to the iPhone.

Apple's magnetic add-on lens patent was first filed for in 2012 and credits Jeffrey Nathan Gleason and Misha Scepanovic as its inventors.


  • Reply 1 of 8
    irelandireland Posts: 17,794member
    Mag Lens?

    One of the main things modern cameras are not good at (meaning smartphones) is mechanical zoom. I hope in the next 20 years we will all have decent mechanical zoom on our smartphones. It's a severely limiting function in theses devices today.
  • Reply 2 of 8
    Zoom -- use attached legs, they provide mechanical zoom.
  • Reply 3 of 8
    irelandireland Posts: 17,794member
    manxman wrote: »
    Zoom -- use attached legs, they provide mechanical zoom.

    I mean decent zoom out-of-the-box with a new smartphone. Currently that's not possible, but it may be within 20 years. I often think it would make more sense if these lenses were reflect lenses that were positioned virtually within the phone's body, thus negating the fact that these devices are so thin now. And not a patent to this effect, but a shipping device. Positioning the lens vertically along with some additional new innovations could allow for some potentially amazing mechanical zoom applications (not apps) that appear to work like magic.
  • Reply 4 of 8
    I hope that Apple works out a way so that metadata for lens attachments are captured.
  • Reply 5 of 8

    Looks pretty cool.


    I first read this headline hoping it was evidence that Apple was working on a DSLR. Little chance, I know. But I would def. buy a DSLR if it had some variation of iOS7 in it.


    Only Apple can clean up the clunky DSLR interfaces that are out there right now.


    Oh well.



  • Reply 6 of 8

    What is the patent office thinking? You can get a patent for aligning a magnetic attachment with a ridge? Most obvious solution ever?



    Originally Posted by manxman View Post

    Zoom -- use attached legs, they provide mechanical zoom.


    Those aren't going to eliminate distortion in portraits unless you're very accurate in how you kick your subject's face. 135mm at 10-15' FTW.


    * it's "optical zoom," not "mechanical"

  • Reply 7 of 8
    What should be created is a barrel-type camera with a lens on the SIDE of the phone. That would allow a mechanical, internal set of lenses for zooming. It would also allow one to take discrete photos. ;)
  • Reply 8 of 8
    bigpicsbigpics Posts: 1,397member
    Originally Posted by manxman View Post

    Zoom -- use attached legs, they provide mechanical zoom.

    Actually they don't.


    (And as another poster noted the person you were originally quoting got the thread off by using "mechanical zoom" to refer to true "optical zoom" - as opposed to digital.  Maybe a better analogy for our times is digital vs "analog zoom."


    In any event, true optical or analog zooming changes a number a variables in the photography process that are different than what walking toward or away from a scene accomplishes - e.g., the relationship between close and far objects (perspective), depth of field, bokeh (the soft edges of out of focus areas in more telephoto pictures - especially at wide f-stops) and more.

    "Digital zooming" by contrast also needs a new name: "digital cropping" - because that's all it is - discarding some of the sensor's pixels.  Digicam makers likely chose digital zoom because they knew it would confuse people and they could claim their new products "also had zoom" (and it's even digital! and everything is cooler when it's digital, right?).... 

    On the other hand, walking toward or away from the field of view does also change relationships between elements - just in different ways.  And having both tools available (optical zoom and being mobile) only multiplies the options a photographer who understands the effects of focal length changes is able to employ creatively.

    Most impressive (and for real photo enthusiasts important) new patent from Apple in a bit for my money, and hope to see real implementations soon. And the field of enthusiast amateur photography will also benefit as people re-discover the nearly lost knowledge of the difference between real and fake zooming (i.e., in-camera cropping) once there are true zooms for phone makers to market..

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