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Home / Tips and Tricks / What is a time-of-flight camera (ToF camera) and why does my phone have one?

What is a time-of-flight camera (ToF camera) and why does my phone have one?



  The Oppo RX17 Pro
Framesira / Shutterstock

More and more manufacturers are bragging that their phones have Time of Flight (ToF) cameras. What are ToF cameras, how do they work and why should you have one in your smartphone?

ToF cameras have extra depth resolution

ToF cameras are basically just normal HD cameras with increased depth resolution. In fact, mobile phones like the Huawei P30 Pro 201

9 offer four times better depth resolution than conventional cameras. "Depth resolution" may sound like a confusing photographic jargon, but is actually easy to understand. A high-resolution camera can distinguish between nearby objects (in the foreground) and far away (in the background).

In photography, this idea of ​​foreground and background is referred to as depth of field. It's what creates a sense of realism or focus. Nearby objects look sharp, with clear contours, while distant objects appear slightly blurry.

With a ToF camera, photographers have more options to control their depth of field. Of course, you do not have to be a photographer to take advantage of the increased depth resolution of a ToF camera. When auto camera settings are paired with a ToF camera, you should create stunning images with a well-defined foreground and background. With a ToF camera, you can also create impressive video with advanced image stabilization or increase the accuracy of your Instagram filters.

In addition, the ToF camera of a phone can be used for advanced face recognition, gestures, and AR video games. Do you remember how Pokemon Go uses your camera to place a Pokemon in your environment? ToF cameras can make this feature even more convincing.

This technology is not new

Strangely, there are ToF cameras already in the late 70's. It only took a while for the technology for consumer applications to become affordable and practical enough.

In the past ToF cameras have been used for topographic maps, industrial machine automation and automatic doors. But technology has found its way into many households (probably yours too). The Xbox One's Kinect uses a ToF camera to identify faces and accurately track hand movements.

  A man taking a picture of a dramatic, misty mountain. Range.
rdonar / Shutterstock

Since April 2019, there are few phones with built-in ToF cameras, such as the LG G8 ThinQ, the Honor View 20, the Huawei P30 Pro, and the Oppo RX17 Pro. These phones will be marketed to photographers and geeks, but they set the standard for future phones, including Samsung and Apple's 2019 and 2020 releases.

Okay, ToF cameras are super cool and since the release of Star they exist Wars But how do they work? you? Why do you have such a great depth resolution?

ToF cameras use lidar to measure depth

Do you know how bats and dolphins use the sound to "see" their environment? Well, we stole this trick, put it in some submarines and called Sonar. ToF cameras use a similar technique to measure depth, but it is called lidar and is based on IR light pulses rather than on sound.

Taking a photo with the ToF camera on a phone generates a pulse of invisible IR light that reflects off nearby objects. Part of the light scatters into the abyss, but most of it gets back to the phone's ToF camera.

Like a bat sonar wave, a lidar wave returns to pieces. IR light reflected by nearby objects quickly returns to the ToF camera, while the light reflected from distant objects takes a little longer. Your phone measures how long it takes for a ray of light to come back, curls up a few numbers and creates a detailed 3D depth map.

  A woman's face is scanned by her ToF camera
MaximP / Shutterstock

a bit like this pin-board toy in which you press your face. These toys have a "3D effect" because your nose, which is close to the board, creates a larger depression than your eyes and cheeks, which are relatively far away from the board.

Of course, only the reflection of IR light provides detailed information about your phone. That's why ToF cameras couple IR functionality to a traditional, high-resolution camera. Your phone uses software to mix a traditional photo with an IR 3D depth map, and at the end you get an image with a well-defined foreground and background.

Future Applications for ToF Cameras

Over the next few years ToF cameras are revolutionizing the way we capture photos and videos on our phones. But let's think about the big picture. We're talking about a technology that can create a depth map of an environment at the speed of light. His applications go far beyond the boundaries of photography.

Your first experience with a ToF camera on a cell phone is probably not just photography. The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G will be included on the front and back ToF cameras. Apple is known to be short on future iPhone plans, but there are rumors that the 2019 iPhones could also include ToF cameras. Yes, this update will make your selfies look awesome, but also increase the accuracy of your face ID and other security measures. If you turn face recognition on when setting up the phone, the device will quietly pick up a 3D map of your face before you can take selfies.

Gesture controls are another exciting (but still confusing) application for ToF cameras. Yes, the Kinect Gine system is worth the wait, but in the next few years you'll probably be using similar technologies to control your phone, computer, smart assistant or smartwatch. At the moment, companies like Inmotion are working on ToF applications for desktops, and manufacturers like Google are using radar and LIDAR systems to create hands-free, gesture-controlled smartwatches and smart assistants.

  Two engineers use a telephone to look at a system AR turbine
Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

ToF cameras are also suitable for VR and AR applications in addition to gesture control. Basically, things like Instagram filters and Pokemon Go appear much more "real" when using a ToF camera. For more complicated applications, such as VR, ToF cameras can be used to register a player's hand movements and footsteps. They can also be used to quickly map and transform physical environments into VR worlds, which can accelerate the development of professional games or open up the VR market to indie game developers. However,

ToF cameras also have practical purposes. In the past, they were used for machine automation in factories. That will not change. As ToF cameras get better (and cheaper), they find their way into even more industrial and consumer AI products. Most smart cars already use some form of LIDAR technology to "see" their environment (interestingly, Tesla cars do not use lidar).

The ToF camera in your new mobile phone is limited to photo, AR and face recognition applications is now a great time to get acquainted with the technology. After all, ToF cameras will be everywhere.

Sources: Mouser


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