Apple files for patent for a mobile camera system

Look for future iPhones and iPads to have even better cameras — or at least some snazzy photo accessories. Apple has filed for a patent (number 2016007008) with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office for a “mobile camera system.”

The invention involves methods and/or systems for using multiple cameras to provide optical zoom to a user. Apple says that the increasing popularity of small, mobile multipurpose devices such as iPhones and iPads has resulted in a need for high-resolution, small form factor cameras that can generate “high levels of image quality” as folks increasingly rely on these multifunction devices as their primary cameras for day-to-day use.

Apple says that users are demanding features, such as zoom photography, that they’ve become accustomed to using in dedicated-purpose camera bodies. The zoom function is useful for capturing the details of a scene or alternatively capturing the context in which those details exist. Apple says that the ability to change focal length to achieve zoom effects is compelling enough to users of dedicated purpose cameras that it compels them to carry bags with an array of removable lenses, each of which weighs more and takes up more space than many common examples of a multifunction device, such as a phone. 

Providing the zoom feature in a camera unit of a multifunction device has traditionally required moving mechanical parts that increase complexity and cost of the device. Such moving parts also reduce reliability of the device and take up valuable space inside the device, which puts the desire for zoom functions in direct conflict with the desire for smaller camera units that take up less space in the multifunction device. Apple is working on a solution to this.

If you’re into the technical aspect of things, here’s Apple’s summary of the invention: “Some embodiments include a first camera unit of a multifunction device capturing a first image of a first visual field. A second camera unit of the multifunction device simultaneously captures a second image of a second visual field. In some embodiments, the first camera unit includes a first optical package with a first focal length. 

“In some embodiments, the second camera unit includes a second optical package with a second focal length. In some embodiments, the first focal length is different from the second focal length, and the first visual field is a subset of the second visual field. In some embodiments, the first image and the second image are preserved to a storage medium as separate data structures.”