Apple VCSEL research could make the iPhone camera bump a thing of the past

Posted:
in iPhone
Future iPhones and iPads could have a smaller camera bump on the rear of the device, among other changes, with Apple exploring the possibility of changing how the camera sensor communicates with other components within a mobile device from using electrical signals to using light.

iPhone XS Max camera bump


The camera bump has received criticism in the past for being one of the disappointing elements of the iPhone design, sticking out of the back of the device and making it impossible for the iPhone to lie flat on a surface. Depending on the model, this can increase the overall thickness of the iPhone by a few millimeters, spoiling the sleek physical appearance for some owners.

Apple does have a number of issues it has to face when squeezing the camera assembly into the svelte iPhone frame, but one challenge that many won't have thought about is the possibility of interference. As the electrical communications paths between components have to be spaced apart from each other to avoid crosstalk, the sheer density of components in a small form factor device makes this difficult to achieve.

The number of electrical signals also poses an issue for cameras with Hall Effect sensors, which are used to determine the position of internal components, such as the lens relative to the image sensor in an Optical Image Stabilization system. Since these require a moving magnetic field to function, they could be placed near to a magnet attached to an actuator, a component that further limits the placement of the Hall Effect sensors.

A diagram showing the light-based data transmission concept
A diagram showing the light-based data transmission concept


In a patent application published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday, the filing for an "Image sensor with optical communication capabilities" suggests the use of multiple light modules to allow an imaging sensor to transmit data to an electrical backplane that connects to the rest of the device's hardware.

The hardware can contain one or more light source modules embedded in the image sensor closest to the backplane, which in turn has light sensors. To allow for higher data transfer rates, as required for high-definition video, multiple source and sensor pairs can work in parallel.

An illustration of how the light-based data transmission between components could work as part of an overall camera setup
An illustration of how the light-based data transmission between components could work as part of an overall camera setup


To accomplish this, the system could use vertical-cavity surface emitting lasers (VCSEL), the same technology used to drive the TrueDepth camera's facial depth mapping function seen in iPhones since the iPhone X. The VCSELs can be embedded in a silicon substrate, exposing an area less than 100 microns in height above the surface for transmission to sensors.

While mainly used for communication, the same system could also be used to determine any changes in the imaging sensor's position. A shift for the imaging sensor relative to the backplane can be measured using the light-based data transfers, by monitoring changes in the amount of light received by the light sensors on the backplane.

A demonstration of how the light sensors could detect movements of the imaging sensor
A demonstration of how the light sensors could detect movements of the imaging sensor


This data could be used to drive actuators connected to the image sensor, putting it back into its original position relative to the backplane. In effect, this can replace some of the functionality produced by the Hall Effect sensors, and in turn could allow the camera assembly to be closer to the rest of a smartphone's circuitry, potentially reducing the bump.

Apple does produce numerous patent applications on a weekly basis, but the existence of a patent or application cannot be used as confirmation of what Apple will bring to market, more ideas it believes are improvements in fields of interest. In short, it is possible that Apple could use the technology to reduce the camera bump, but it remains to be seen if it will actually be employed in a future consumer product.

The filing suggests an alternative use for VCSELs than in their current capacities. Along with the TrueDepth camera, VCSELs are also used by some firms to produce world-sensing arrays used for self-driving vehicles, like Apple's fleet of autonomous vehicles.

Apple has invested heavily in the production of VCSEL, with supplier Finisar benefiting from a $390 million infusion as part of Apple's Advanced Manufacturing Fund last year. The cash injection is intended to help the supplier increase its research and development spending on the components, as well as to improve its production.

In March, Finisar showed off its under-construction 700,000-square-foot facility in Sherman, Texas dedicated to VCSEL production. At the time, Finisar Allen Vice President and General Manager Curtis Barratt advised an intention of "making Sherman the VCSEL capital of the world, with the components from the facility to be used for "everything from self-driving cars, to gesture recognition, to facial recognition."

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 12
    JWSCJWSC Posts: 274member

    There’s also a more conventional solution.  With a 45 degree mirror you could greatly extend the depth and number of lenses through the main body of the case near the top.

    edited December 2018
  • Reply 2 of 12
    Or they could just have made the iPhone 1.5mm thicker which would allow a bigger battery. 
    muthuk_vanalingampembroke
  • Reply 3 of 12
    GabyGaby Posts: 41member
    I’m eager to see when and how they implement the quantum film and other invisage tech they acquired. Quantum film was pretty much a finished product so I hope they make use of it soon. Then they can shrink the components potentially, even if they don’t the benefits will be huge. 
  • Reply 4 of 12
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 998member
    Or they could just have made the iPhone 1.5mm thicker which would allow a bigger battery. 
    Yes, but Apple has been incredibly fixated on how thin their devices are for a while now. Too much so, IMO
    muthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 5 of 12
    1st1st Posts: 271member
    hmm, interesting - Lens stack take more thickness and each interface resulted light lost.  Simplify and compact lens stack would be my 1st guess to reduce bump.  However, you still need some gap for auto-focus to activate.  As for the VCSEL scheme, lets see if alignment or depth of focus issue will be resolved (would hate to lost limited focus optical effect... fuzzy is sometimes very romantic.  Digital "foggy" just not cut it).  Can't wait to lay my hands on one of those gadget - (don't need iphone software, just want to test raw image quality... compare to thick stack of lens).  
  • Reply 6 of 12
    Or they could just have made the iPhone 1.5mm thicker which would allow a bigger battery. 
    Yes, yes and yes. Given that pretty well everyone uses a case of some sort, I reckon increasing the depth of the phone by 1.5mm would not have any adverse market reaction. 
  • Reply 7 of 12
    Or they could just have made the iPhone 1.5mm thicker which would allow a bigger battery. 
    Definitely this. But the problem with that is that they would make less money as more material is used to make the device. Oh well...
  • Reply 8 of 12
    Yep. Sherman, Texas is where I’m from. I was born, raised and still live here in my hometown! I know which building in Sherman, Texas that would make VCSEL. It’s around 3-5 miles south of downtown. In that huge ass building that used to be MEMC which made silicon waffle. I’m proud Shermanites! 
  • Reply 9 of 12
    Or they could just have made the iPhone 1.5mm thicker which would allow a bigger battery. 
    Or 3mm thicker for even more battery!

    Nah. I already get all-day battery. I want the impossibly thin devices of the scif future.
  • Reply 10 of 12

    MplsP said:
    Or they could just have made the iPhone 1.5mm thicker which would allow a bigger battery. 
    Yes, but Apple has been incredibly fixated on how thin their devices are for a while now. Too much so, IMO
    Er, but you do realize iPhones have gotten thicker, not thinner, right?
    edited December 2018
  • Reply 11 of 12
    tshapitshapi Posts: 288member
    pembroke said:
    Or they could just have made the iPhone 1.5mm thicker which would allow a bigger battery. 
    Yes, yes and yes. Given that pretty well everyone uses a case of some sort, I reckon increasing the depth of the phone by 1.5mm would not have any adverse market reaction. 
    Apple is not opposed to raising its price to maintain its profit margin. Also, it’s my opinion That apples drive for thinness is more about drive to improve technology and maintain its luxury price points. 
  • Reply 12 of 12
    rcfarcfa Posts: 745member
    The best way of avoiding the bump:
    make the phone a bit thicker, it’s uncomfortably thin, the batteries are much more fragile and don’t last as long since the phones are that thin, and we might finally get enough power, that the phone still works, if after a day at work you take an intercontinental overnight flight, when you arrive at your destination.

    If Apple weren’t obsessed with being thin like an anorexic teenager, then we’d not need either of battery replacement programs or bumps on the back of the phone, or dorky looking phone cases with extra batteries, portable battery packs, and all that junk.

    At the very least, rather than offering different colors, offer slim and extended run time versions of the phones.
Sign In or Register to comment.