The iPhone camera, versatile as it is, remains significantly restricted when compared to devices such as DSLRs which are designed to accept interchangeable lenses.
More adventurous photographers have for many years turned to add-on lenses such as those from Olloclip and Moment as a way of supplementing the iPhone’s capabilities with wide-angle, telephoto, macro and even fisheye options. However, these lenses bring with them an inevitable reduction in image quality. Now, a recently-granted patent reveals how Apple could dramatically improve the quality of add-on lenses by incorporating specialized supporting hardware within the iPhone itself. US Patent No. 10,031,312 describes a ‘small format camera system for mobile devices’ which can detect when an external lens is being used and automatically apply adjustments and corrections to mitigate any quality-reducing factors.
The external lens could be detected either directly with specially designed sensors or by inspecting captured images for tell-tale distortions. The clever part, however, is how the then makes adjustments to optimize image quality. This is achieved in several ways, including mechanically altering the position of the phone’s built-in lens in one or more axes to ensure perfect alignment, as well as through image processing after taking the photo. The types of movement needed to adjust the lens position could be carried out by hardware not dissimilar to existing optical image stabilization technologies already present in Apple’s cameras although, from the description, it does look like new camera hardware would be required to pull off all of the tricks in the patent.
Does this hint at a new type of product from Apple?
While it’s clear how this technology could dramatically improve photos taken with add-on lenses, it’s not so clear why Apple would go to this much trouble to improve the quality of products it doesn’t manufacture itself - yet. It would be exciting to see Apple come up with some official iPhone add-on lenses, especially if supported by these new optimization technologies. However, it could spell the end for products like the Olloclip and Moment range - especially if Apple should decide to restrict the new tech to its own-brand accessories.
For full details check out the full USPTO patent.