Apple files for patent for ‘folded camera’

I’m dubious that Apple will release a foldable iPhone or iPad; however, the company has filed for a patent (number 20190243112) for a “folded camera” that hints at the possibility.

In the patent filing, Apple notes that the advent of small, mobile multipurpose devices such as smartphones and tablet or pad devices has resulted in a need for high-resolution, small form factor cameras that are lightweight, compact, and capable of capturing high resolution, high quality images at low F-numbers for integration in the devices. However, due to limitations of conventional camera technology, conventional small cameras used in such devices tend to capture images at lower resolutions and/or with lower image quality than can be achieved with larger, higher quality cameras. 

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Apple says that achieving higher resolution with small package size cameras generally requires use of a photosensor with small pixel size and a good, compact imaging lens system. Advances in technology have achieved reduction of the pixel size in photosensors. 

However, as photosensors become more compact and powerful, demand for compact imaging lens systems with improved imaging quality performance has increased. In addition, there are increasing expectations for small form factor cameras to be equipped with higher pixel count and/or larger pixel size image sensors (one or both of which may require larger image sensors) while still maintaining a module height that is compact enough to fit into portable electronic devices. 

Apple says there’s a challenge from an optical system design point of view to provide an imaging lens system capable of capturing high brightness, high resolution images under the physical constraints imposed by small form factor cameras. 

Here’s Apple’s summary of the invention: “A folded camera that includes two light folding elements such as prisms and an independent lens system, located between the two prisms, which includes an aperture stop and a lens stack. The lens system may be moved on one or more axes independently of the prisms to provide autofocus and/or optical image stabilization for the camera. The shapes, materials, and arrangements of the refractive lens elements in the lens stack may be selected to capture high resolution, high quality images while providing a sufficiently long back focal length to accommodate the second prism.”

Of course, Apple files for — and is granted — lots of patents by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Many are for inventions that never see the light of day. However, you never can tell which ones will materialize in a real product.