Apple’s new Animoji feature has proven to be a viral and fun part of the iPhone X, but the $999 starting price is an understandable roadblock for a lot of potential customers. Apple says Animoji requires the TrueDepth camera system to work, but a quick hands-on test appears to show the playful messaging app working even when the IR camera unique to iPhone X is covered…

YouTuber Marques Brownlee cleverly tested this during his iPhone X review and demonstrated Animoji facial tracking working reliably even when the infrared camera which is exclusive to the iPhone X is covered. Our own testing produced similar results, so is Apple artificially limiting Animoji to its priciest iPhone?

Apple says on its website that Animoji requires the TrueDepth camera system which consists of infrared and front cameras, flood illuminator, proximity and ambient light sensors, microphone and speaker, and dot projector. Working with the A11 Bionic chip, the TrueDepth camera system “captures and analyzes more than 50 different muscle movements” to create Animoji characters that mirror your facial expressions and movements.

But iPhone X isn’t the only iPhone with the A11 Bionic chip; iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus both feature the latest Apple chip too. So why does covering the IR camera make Animoji appear to work when just the RGB camera is exposed?

Our understanding is Animoji indeed uses both the IR and RGB camera to work properly even though the feature attempts to work correctly when the IR camera is covered. The TrueDepth camera system uses the IR camera to create a depth map when available which is why you can see the IR camera fire up when captured on video.

Does this mean Animoji could work without the IR camera on other iPhones? My guess is performance would vary too much in different environments while Animoji on iPhone X offer a consistent experience for users today.

You can even recreate Animoji-like experiences with App Store apps like SUPERMOJI on any iPhone or iPad running iOS 11 (which is my solution to letting my four-year-old daughter do what she calls “make faces” without handing over my iPhone X), but performance isn’t as polished as the real thing.

A more technical explanation about what’s going on under the hood would be interesting to see, but I wouldn’t expect Apple to disclose how it works its magic to competitors in great detail.

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About the Author

Zac Hall

Zac covers Apple news for 9to5Mac and hosts the 9to5Mac Happy Hour and 9to5Mac Watch Time podcasts.