iPhone Periscope Camera Patent Granted Ahead of Rumored 2022 or 2023 Debut
Apple has been granted a broad patent for a periscope camera system, which is rumored to be coming to the iPhone for the first time as soon as next year.
Periscope camera systems attempt to address the problem of internal size constraints inside a smartphone that can limit image quality. The patent explains:
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... Thus, a challenge from an optical system design point of view is to provide an imaging lens system that is capable of capturing high brightness, high resolution images under the physical constraints imposed by small form factor cameras.
With folded camera optics, light absorbed by the image sensor is bent or "folded," allowing for increased optical zoom and improved image quality while maintaining a compact lens design appropriate for smartphones. The patent describes some of these advantages, saying that "the prisms provide a "folded" optical axis for the camera, for example to reduce the Z-height of the camera."
Periscope technology would allow for significantly increased optical zoom on iPhones, well beyond the current 2x and 2.5x limits on the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max, respectively. Huawei's P40 Pro+ smartphone, for example, features a periscope lens with up to 10x optical zoom.
Apple's folded camera system includes two light folding elements, such as prisms, and an independent lens system located between the two light folding elements. This lens system includes an aperture stop and a lens stack. The lens system may be moved independently of the light folding elements to provide autofocus and optical image stabilization.
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.
The first iPhone models featuring a periscope camera lens system are expected to arrive in 2022 or 2023. Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo initially said that the technology would come to the iPhone in 2022, but has since revised his expectation to say 2023. Other reports, such as from The Elec, have maintained that the periscope camera will arrive on at least some iPhone models in 2022.
Apple was initially said to have run into trouble developing its own periscope camera system because much of the technology is guarded by other patents, and thus was looking to purchase the components from the patent holders instead. Samsung, for example, owns the "ball-type actuator" technology used in many periscope lenses.
The granting of this patent may indicate that Apple had found a way to get around the reach of existing patents by developing its own technology with two light folding prisms, where only one prism would normally be used. This may avoid the need to license or buy components from patent holders while retaining the advantages of a periscope system.
Nevertheless, the patent serves as yet another indication that Apple is advancing its plans to bring a periscope camera to the iPhone to improve image quality and optical zoom capability, as well as potentially reduce the need for a rear camera bump.