New camera and image-processing technology promises to change how smartphones and virtual-reality headsets see the world.
Apples AAPL, -0.40% upcoming iPhone 8 is widely expected to have facial-recognition and iris-detection abilities, raising fears that Android phones would fall behind in a key technological area.
Now Qualcomm QCOM, -1.04% the dominant chipset, processor, and wireless connectivity provider for Android-based devices, has released information about an updated set of Spectra image processors that will enable similar capabilities in Android phones, tablets and VR headsets later this year.
How a smartphone senses the physical world impacts the ability to include security features in the device, add realism to gaming and augmented reality, and open up markets for new uses that dont yet exist. This capability comes from depth sensing, an ability for the device to passively or actively locate itself in the physical world while measuring the spaces and items around it.
Depth sensing isnt new to smartphones and tablets, first seeing significant use in Googles GOOG, +0.51% GOOGL, +0.66% Project Tango and Intels INTC, -0.53% RealSense technology. Tango uses a laser-based implementation but requires a bulky lens on the rear of the device. Intel RealSense used a pair of cameras and calculated depth based on parallax mapping between them, just as the human eye works.
Devices like the iPhone 7 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S8 offer faux depth perception for features like portrait photo modes. In reality, they only emulate the ability to sense depth by use different-range camera lenses and dont provide true depth-mapping capability.
The market for depth-sensing capability will grow significantly with the buzz Apple inevitably creates with its new iPhone, and Qualcomm can ride that wave of interest into Android devices from the numerous phone vendors eager to compete, including Samsung 005930, +2.67% HTC 2498, -0.79% and LG Electronics 066570, +0.41%
For consumers, this means more advanced security and advanced features on mobile devices. Face detection that combines the standard camera input along with infrared (IR) depth sensing will allow for incredibly accurate and secure authentication. Qualcomm claims the accuracy level is enough to prevent photos and even 3-D models of faces from unlocking a device thanks to interactions of human skin and eyes with IR light.
It also will be possible to have 3-D reconstruction of physical objects with active depth sensing, allowing gamers to bring real items into virtual worlds. Designers will be able to accurately measure physical spaces that they can look through in full 3-D. Virtual reality and augmented reality will benefit from the increased accuracy of its localization and mapping algorithms, giving systems like Samsung Gear VR and Google Daydream a better sense of where the user is in physical space.
Entry-level phones that today dont have any depth-sensing capability will have integrations that open up new features. Low-cost phones will have the ability to integrate image quality enhancements like blurred bokeh (portrait mode) and basic mixed or augmented reality, previously only available on flagship devices at much higher prices.
The more advanced, and costly, integration for depth sensing uses infrared projects and cameras to more accurately measure spaces. This increased resolution opens up more areas for development and innovation.
Qualcomm is going to accelerate adoption of this higher performance depth sensing technology by offering pre-built and pre-optimized modules that phone vendors can simply chose from a menu of options. This decreases costs and time to market, and should lead to a greater level of adoption than previous next-generation technologies in the Android market.
Though Apple is letting developers build applications and integrations with current hardware, it will likely build its own co-processor to handle the compute workloads that come from active depth sensing to help offset power consumption concerns from using a general-purpose processor.
Early leaks indicate that Apple will focus its face-detection technology on a similar path as Qualcomm: security and convenience. By using depth-based facial recognition for both login and security (as a Touch ID replacement), users will have an alternative to fingerprints. That is good news for a device that is having problems moving to a fingerprint sensor design that uses the entire screen.
Now read: Apple might be a money maker, but its behind the curve on almost all of its products
Ryan Shrout is the founder and lead analyst at Shrout Research, and the owner of PC Perspective. Follow him on Twitter @ryanshrout.
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