Camera patent granted to Apple reflects Steve Jobs’ promise to “reinvent iPhone photography”

The same photograph with the focus point changed retrospectively (lycro.com)

The same photograph with the focus point changed retrospectively (image: lytro.com)

A patent granted to Apple today for a Light Field camera – a camera with zero shutter delay and where the focus point can be changed after taking the photo – covers the precise technology Steve Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson he wanted to use to “reinvent photography.”

He had three things that he wanted to reinvent: the television, textbooks and photography.

Jobs met with Lytro CEO Ren Ng in the summer of 2011, was shown a demo of the company’s Light Field camera and said that that he wanted the company to work with Apple … 

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The patent refers to a “refocusable imaging mode adaptor,” and the abstract perfectly describes a Light Field camera:

A digital camera system configurable to operate in a low-resolution refocusable mode and a high-resolution non-refocusable mode comprising: a camera body; an image sensor mounted in the camera body having a plurality of sensor pixels for capturing a digital image; an imaging lens for forming an image of a scene onto an image plane, the imaging lens having an aperture; and an adaptor that can be inserted between the imaging lens and the image sensor to provide the low-resolution refocusable mode and can be removed to provide the high-resolution non-refocusable mode, the adaptor including a microlens array with a plurality of microlenses; wherein when the adaptor is inserted to provide the low-resolution refocusable mode, the microlens array is positioned between the imaging lens and the image sensor.

Sections of the patent reference prior art, likely a reference to the work done by Lycos in this area.

prior

We’ve often said that we don’t cover most Apple patents because the company patents all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons, with very few of them making it into Apple products. If you tried to use Apple patents to predict future product releases, you’d be both very disappointed and very confused.

This one, too, may come to nothing. But when it plays directly into something that interested Steve Jobs enough to consider it a reinvention of photography, we can probably be pretty confident that the technology has, at the very least, been examined very, very closely by Apple.

Of course, wanting to do it and being able to are two different things. Fitting a Light Field camera into something as slim as an iPhone is probably best described as ‘challenging.’ But we’ll certainly be keeping our ear to the ground on this one.

If you want to play with the technology yourself, Lytro has an interactive gallery online. Pick a photo, then simply click where you want to focus.

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Comments

  1. Pierre Calixte - 9 years ago

    If Apple is able to put a light field into an iphone, it’s going to be killer.

  2. Mateo Hyun Suk Chang - 9 years ago

    given the amount of depth needed for this thing to be effective, my best guess is Apple comes up with a clip-on device for the rim of your sunglasses, or for those who don’t wear glasses, an in-ear bluetooth headphone with light field capabilities? you would see the image/video streaming directly to your iPhone and control all settings from it. you could still answer your phone as you take pictures or capture video. this guess is in line with all the speculation on wearable gadgets.

  3. Dan Exby - 9 years ago

    So I guess I’m a little confused…

    Apple was awarded a patent for essentially an existing camera system that Lycos invented and is already selling. Does this mean the patent covers Apple sticking a Lycos like camera into a phone? Otherwise I see no point to this patent. Clearly Lycos was smart enough to already patent the heck out of their technology, which is what Apple referred to in their prior art. So where does the Lycos patent end and this one begin?

    • Ben Lovejoy - 9 years ago

      I suspect it would take a technology patent lawyer to answer your question in detail … The broad brush-stroke is that Lytro has patented a lot of the core Light Field technology while Apple has patented a specific application of that technology.

    • tallestskil - 9 years ago

      You can’t patent light field photography, just an implementation thereof.

      • Marley Fernandes - 9 years ago

        if you get to patent, square devices with round corners, then i guess you do have the right to patent light field photography, it’s not rocket science, this is just apples playing around with lawyers..

      • Tallest Skil - 9 years ago

        Hey, enjoy your trolling. When you feel like saying something that isn’t utter tripe, feel free to respond again.

    • Reading the patent, Apple is claiming a camera that has a *removable* micro lens array in an interchangeable lens camera. Thus the camera can be used for high resolution, non-refocusable content when used without the removable array, or for low resolution, refocusable content with it.

  4. jlword - 9 years ago

    Now that’s cool. An actual lyrtra style camera physically part of a smartphone! Nokia created an app that does this ehich debuted on the Nokia Lumia 1520, and is available for other Lumia phones. I know the iphone has a similar app, but the Nokia Lumia line of phones with the refocus app and the shallower depth of filed found on devices like the 1020 produce a better affect. http://conversations.nokia.com/2013/11/13/nokia-refocus-now-available-nokia-lumia/

    https://refocus.nokia.com/

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2bTwOvvjS2E&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D2bTwOvvjS2E

    • Ben Lovejoy - 9 years ago

      Yes, the Nokia approach is of course a ‘cheat’ rather than a light field shot: it takes a bunch of photos and then selects the right one for the focus point you choose.

  5. Would love to have the Lytro functionality in some future iPhone. It even has the potential to simplify things. Imagine the “Photo” and “Square” modes in the Camera app but without even having to “tap to focus”.

  6. danbridgland - 9 years ago

    Placing a zoom lens on or in smartphone is absolutely achievable, though not without significant concessions to product design.

    There have been compact cameras available for many years with internal zoom lenses. Since all parts are contained within the shell of the camera, there would be no external moving parts, much like today’s smartphones. The internal zoom lens more closely resembles a periscope. Placing such a zoom mechanism inside a smartphone would mean less space for the battery.

    Look at the sapphire lens on the iPhone 5. It’s certainly small enough to fit within the shell of the iPhone 5 or 5s. However as the lenses separate so to does the light field increase. Meaning you need increasingly larger sizes of optics for each lens, the final external lens may end up closer to the size of a penny or the home button than the current lens.

  7. jess cloud - 9 years ago

    The camera is pretty good i had a developer on 5spot tell me that use to work with apple that there next concept idea was to make the phone illuminate … and have better resolution in the dark. Apple sure is unique with its simplicity

  8. iPirmin Kerman - 9 years ago

    This is something which will set Apple so far apart for its competitors and I hope that this will become more than just another patent in a filing cabinet. And despite current limitations around this tech I guarantee you a way will be found to make it work in something like an iPhone

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!


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