For years, phone makers raced to pack in as many megapixels as possible into mobile cameras. The small size of phone sensors means more megapixels will only do you so much good. Now, the trend is toward more camera sensors. Some phones pack as many as four rear-facing camera sensors, but LG has plans for several times that. In a recent patent filing, LG shows off a concept for a phone with 16 of them.
Dual camera setups on smartphones came into existence during the brief era of 3D phones. In fact, LG was one of the first with two cameras on its ill-fated Optimus 3D. With that phone, the goal was to take 3D photos that looked cool on the phone’s screen and nowhere else. When 3D phones died, multi-camera designs didn’t completely die off. HTC equipped the One M8 with a secondary camera as a depth sensor, which is similar to many phones of today. However, the depth effects were buggy — it would take a few years before even two cameras would become appealing to consumers.
LG’s new camera patent is, in some ways, a throwback to the days of 3D. With 16 lenses in a 4 x 4 matrix, the concept phone could snap multiple photos simultaneously from slightly different angles. According to the patent, LG believes phones could be made with these lenses on a flat surface like a traditional phone or with a concave curve. The latter could be more interesting, providing 3D information about a scene.
Photos captured on a phone right now, even those from devices with fancy depth sensors and telephoto lenses, are flat. The information in the image is all visible in the 2D image. The imaginary phone in LG’s patent could gather data about the subject from multiple angles, allowing you to manipulate the final product. For example, you could replace parts of an image with data from a different sensor to correct for a blink or completely change the perspective of an object.
Smartphone manufacturers patent theoretical technology all the time, but this one doesn’t seem completely outside the realm of possibility. We’re already seeing phones with four main cameras, and more cameras do offer more functionality. Because of size limitations in smartphones, it’s easier to pack in more sensors than to include a single larger lens that can adjust like on a real camera. Although, the brute force approach of adding more sensors might not help LG turn around its faltering mobile division. Google’s Pixel phones only have one rear camera sensor, and they offer the best photo-taking experience of any Android phone. Gathering 3D image data won’t do you much good if you don’t have the computational photography technology to make it more than a novelty.
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