27 November 2013

Apple patents camera with fresh tech, vision to reinvent photography

Image Credit: Apple

Steve Jobs, legendary co-founder of Apple and visionary behind many of the iDevices we hold so near and dear, once said that his wish list included the reinvention of three industries: textbooks, television and photography. Now it seems that Apple may soon have new technology that will give your iPhone photos and selfies a substantial upgrade.

The US Patent and Trademark Office confirmed this week that Apple was granted a patent for a “digital camera including refocusable imaging mode adaptor,” that would allow a user to snap a photo and then refocus the image after the fact. The patent also covers inclusion of such a system in portable devices, such as an iPhone or an iPad.

The patent describes a camera that can be configured to operate in both a lower-resolution mode that allows refocusing after image capture, as well as a high-resolution mode that doesn’t permit refocusing. The body of the camera contains an image mode adaptor to select the operating mode.

Apple being granted a new patent is hardly unusual; they secure patents the way some people collect matchbooks. They patent all kinds of things for any number of reasons, but very few of them actually make it into the end product of an Apple device.

(A word of caution to anyone trying to correlate Apple’s patents to its future product releases: you’re likely to come away from the exercise bewildered, frustrated, empty-handed and with a very cloudy and unreliable crystal ball.)

What makes this patent noteworthy is that it is for something that Steve Jobs himself was very specifically interested in, enough so to deem it instrumental to the reinvention of photography. That kind of personal attention from Jobs is sure to carry some weight, ensuring that Apple’s team gives it more than a cursory once-over.

The patent details a “light-field” or plenoptic camera, which uses a micro lens array positioned between a main imaging lens and a sensor array. The Lytro, a widely respected and well-known consumer light field camera uses this imaging technology, reports Apple Insider’s Mikey Campbell.

In 2006, Lytro Inc. was founded by Ren Ng, a graduate student in computer science at Stanford University whose PhD. research on light field photography won numerous academic awards. The Lytro won accolades from consumers and the industry alike upon its release in in February 2012.

9to5mac.com reports that the Lytro camera caught the attention of late Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs, whose interest in the technology earned Ng an invite to Jobs’ home for a personal live demonstration of the camera before its public launch. It’s no secret that Jobs was passionate about innovation and famously planned to use this technology to “reinvent photography,” according to Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson.

Though Apple draws inspiration from and cites the Lytro as “prior art” in its patent application, Apple’s invention would also allow for changes to image quality and resolution, in addition to refocusing after image capture. Plus, its own micro lens array has a higher spatial resolution, resulting in higher-quality images.

The first challenge Apple faces is fitting this technology into a small device like an iPhone, iPad or next generation iPod. Or, maybe this could be the first indication that Apple is putting development of its first stand-alone point-and-shoot digital camera, which has been the subject of rumor and speculation since May 2012.

Whether it’s the daunting task of fitting a light field camera into a handheld iDevice, or the next innovation in digital cameras, we’ll be paying extra special attention to this to see what develops.

Now read: Apple Said Developing Curved IPhone Screens, Enhanced Sensors


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