The Oppo RX17 Pro

More and more manufacturers are bragging that their phones have Time of Flight (ToF) cameras. But what are ToF cameras, how do they work, and why would you want one in your smartphone?

ToF Cameras Have Extra Depth Resolution

At a very basic level, ToF cameras are just regular HD cameras with an increased depth resolution. In fact, phones like the 2019 Huawei P30 Pro sport a depth resolution that’s four times better than conventional cameras. While “depth resolution” may sound like confusing photography jargon, it’s actually easy to understand. A camera with high depth resolution can differentiate between objects that are nearby (in the foreground) and far away (in the background).

In photography, this idea of foreground and background is called depth of field. It’s what creates a sense of realism or focus. Objects that are nearby look sharp, with clean outlines, while far away objects look slightly blurred.

With a ToF camera, photographers have more options for controlling their depth of field. Of course, you don’t have to be a photographer to benefit from a ToF camera’s increased depth resolution. Automatic camera settings, when paired with a ToF camera, should produce stunning images with a well-defined foreground and background. A ToF camera could also be used to produce a stunning video with advanced image stabilization or to increase the accuracy of your Instagram filters.

Additionally, a phone’s ToF camera could be used for advanced facial recognition, gestures, and AR video games. Remember how Pokemon Go uses your camera to place a Pokemon in your environment? ToF cameras can make that feature a lot more convincing.

This Technology Isn’t New

Oddly enough, ToF cameras have been around since the late ’70s. It’s just taken a while for the technology to become cheap and convenient enough for consumer applications.

In the past, ToF cameras were used for topographic mapping, industrial machine automation, and automatic doors. But the technology made its way into many homes (including yours, probably) back in 2014. The Xbox One’s Kinect uses a ToF camera to identify faces and track hand gestures accurately.

A man taking a photo of a dramatic, foggy mountain range.

As of April 2019, there are only a few phones that have built-in ToF cameras, like the LG G8 ThinQ, the Honor View 20, the Huawei P30 Pro, and the Oppo RX17 Pro. These phones are marketed toward photographers and geeks, but they’re setting the standard for future phones, including Samsung and Apple’s 2019 and 2020 releases.

Okay, ToF cameras are super cool, and they’ve existed since the release of Star Wars. But how do they work? Why do they have such a great depth resolution?

ToF Cameras Use Lidar to Measure Depth

Do you know how bats and dolphins use sound to “see” their environment? Well, we stole that trick, stuck it in some submarines, and named it sonar. ToF cameras use a similar technique to measure depth, but it’s called lidar, and it relies on pulses of IR light instead of sound.

When you take a photo with a phone’s ToF camera, it shoots out a pulse of invisible IR light that reflects off of nearby objects. Some of that light scatters into the abyss, but most of it finds its way back into the phone’s ToF camera.

Like a bat’s sonar wave, a lidar wave returns in bits and pieces. IR light that reflects off of nearby objects will return to the ToF camera quickly, while the light that reflects off of faraway objects will take a little longer. Your phone measures how long it takes each ray of light to come back, crunches some numbers, and creates a detailed 3D depth map.

A woman's face is scanned by her ToF camera

It’s a bit like those pin-board toys that you press your face into. These toys have a “3D effect” because your nose, which is close to the board, creates a larger indentation than your eyes and cheeks, which are relatively far away from the board.

Of course, the reflection of IR light only provides your phone with depth information. That’s why ToF cameras pair IR functionality with a conventional, high-resolution camera. Your phone uses software to mix a conventional photo with an IR 3D depth map, and you end up with an image that has a well-defined foreground and background.

Future Applications for ToF Cameras

In the next few years, ToF cameras will revolutionize the way that we take pictures and video with our phones. But let’s think about the big picture here. We’re talking about a form of technology that can create a depth map of an environment at the speed of light. Its applications push way beyond the bounds of photography.

In fact, your first experience with a phone’s ToF camera probably won’t just be about photography. The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G will include ToF cameras, both on the front and back. Apple is famously tight-lipped about future iPhone plans, but there are rumors the 2019 iPhones could include ToF cameras as well. Yes, this update will make your selfies look amazing, but it’ll also increase the accuracy of Face ID and other security measures. If you enable facial recognition while setting up your phone, it’ll quietly capture a 3D map of your face before you get the chance to take any selfies.

Gesture controls are another exciting (yet arguably dorky) application for ToF cameras. Yes, the Kinect’s gesture system is worth a hefty eye-roll, but in the next few years, you’ll probably find yourself using similar tech to control your phone, computer, smart assistant, or smartwatch. Right now, companies like Inmotion are working on ToF applications for desktop computers, and manufacturers like Google are using radar and lidar systems to create hands-free, gesture controlled smartwatches and smart assistants.

Two engineers use a phone to look at an AR turbine

Along with gesture controls, ToF cameras are also ideal for VR and AR applications. At a basic level, things like Instagram Filters and Pokemon Go will seem a lot more “real” when used with a ToF camera. But for more complicated applications, like VR, ToF cameras could be used to register a gamer’s hand gestures and footsteps. They can also be used to quickly map physical environments and convert them into VR worlds, which could speed up professional game development or open up the VR market for indie game developers.

But ToF cameras also have practical purposes. In the past, they’ve been used for machine automation in factories. That won’t change. As ToF cameras get better (and cheaper), they’ll find their way into even more industrial and consumer-grade AI products. Most smart cars already utilize a form of lidar technology to “see” their environment (interestingly enough, Tesla cars doesn’t use lidar).

While the ToF camera in your new cellphone is limited to photographic, AR, and facial recognition applications, now’s a good time to get comfortable with the technology. Eventually, ToF cameras will be everywhere.

Sources: Mouser

Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
Read Full Bio »