If this recent patent filed by Apple is anything to go by, future iPhones and similar devices could contain cameras unlike any before seen on a smartphone, including technologies as radical as multiple zooming lens elements, wobbling mirrors and even a built in periscope.
Picked up recently by the team at AppleInsider, the patent application number 20150042870 entitled, “Mirror Tilt Actuation” details a method of providing a vastly improved form of optical image stabilisation, far exceeding the capabilities of the stabilisation system found on the iPhone 6 Plus.
The outer lens element focuses incoming light onto a mirror, which then deflects the rays by 90 degrees down into the shaft of the periscope and through two separate moving groups of zoom lens elements before entering a colour splitting prism and finally reaching the image sensor.
The optical image stabilisation works by applying tiny positional adjustments to the mirror which is fitted with magnetically controlled actuators which, cause it to tilt in opposition to the typical movements of the phone when used hand held.
The wording of the patent focuses almost entirely on the new device’s image stabilisation features, but the inclusion of independent zoom lens elements is potentially far more exciting.
Apple’s patent application includes a movable mirror inside a periscopic device featuring zoom lens elements. (Image Credit: Apple)
Current smartphones are mostly fitted with fixed “prime” lenses which can’t zoom in to or out of the scene. If you’re too close to, or to far away from, your subject, you have to physically move yourself and the phone forwards or backwards – and this isn’t always possible.
In the camera world, zoom lenses and long telephoto lenses tend to protrude considerably from the front – obviously highly inconvenient for a device designed to slip into a pocket, and especially considering Apple’s obsession with keeping its devices as thin as possible. A periscope device such as the one described in this patent would allow a long lens to fit within the length of a phone rather than within its negligible depth.
This would result in a powerful zoom lens which never protrudes any further from the surface of the device than a typical fixed lens.
Whether Apple could maintain the required level of image quality is another matter altogether, as this lens system is considerably more complex than the current iPhone system and zoom lenses in general struggle to equal the quality of fixed prime lenses. Some photographers therefore prefer to stick with prime lenses instead. These tend to offer improved sharpness and much better light gathering ability due to wide apertures.
Apple’s new system furthermore adds an unprecedented number of delicate moving parts to the camera design. This is sure to results in many reliability issues which Apple would need to overcome before releasing such a product.
For these reasons, I don’t envisage this new camera system appearing in a standard iPhone any time soon, although the diagrams in the patent application do show an intended device resembling an iPhone/iPad and featuring a SIM card slot, speaker and microphone.
A design like this is a great idea, but Apple will really have to come up with something great in order to maintain the level of picture quality which can be achieved with the current fixed lens arrangement. Users would no-doubt welcome a zoom feature and improved image stabilisation, but any significant drop in overall image quality or low-light performance would receive a rather less favourable reception.
For now, the best solution for iPhone users who want telephoto or wide angle views is to use an external lens, such as the Olloclip, or perhaps one of Sony ’s Lens Style Cameras, like the QX30. The current optical image stabilisation system in the iPhone 6 Plus also does a pretty good job at improving low light pictures when compared to the standard iPhone 6, so there’s no pressing need to bring this technology to market just yet.