Future Android phones could come equipped with some fancy new camera features thanks to technology being developed by Qualcomm. The company has yet to announce its next-generation Snapdragon system-on-a-chip (SoC), but it’s already showing off some wild things it’ll be able to do. An updated version of Qualcomm’s image signal processor (ISP) will allow for advanced camera features like active depth sensing. Device makers won’t even need to do any of the hard stuff — they can just license the technology.
With an upcoming version of the Snapdragon SoC, Qualcomm will roll out the second-generation Spectra ISP. The ISP is part of the SoC alongside the CPU, GPU, modem, and other components. Spectra’s job is to take the output of the camera sensor and process the image you are eventually shown. That can involve the use of machine learning and custom algorithms to eliminate noise or sharpen details, but Qualcomm started planning for the future of imaging last year. That’s when it launched the Spectra Module Program, which offered OEMs drop-in camera module solutions that took full advantage of the ISP.
The second-generation Spectra part will add support for three new camera modules to Snapdragon-powered devices: passive depth-sensing, active depth sensing, and iris scanning. Passive depth sensing is something we’ve seen on a number of phones. It uses two camera sensors to capture images in stereo and estimate distance in the same way our eyes operate. This feature has worked okay on some phones, but it’s usually disappointing.
The active depth mode could be much more interesting. Qualcomm’s active depth sensing (see above) uses an IR lamp to shine a pattern of invisible (to us) dots on an object. An IR sensor on the phone can see the dots and accurately record their distance. That data can be used to edit and manipulate the image from a standard visible light camera module. This sounds vaguely similar to Google’s Tango augmented reality platform.
Qualcomm’s iris scanning module for Spectra should allow more OEMs to compete with Samsung’s iris scanning tech. Qualcomm contends that its version is better than Samsung’s in both speed and accuracy. It’s also able to tell the difference between a real eye and an image of one for improved security.
The new camera features demoed by Qualcomm will almost certainly be restricted to the most expensive phones on the market. Not only will it require powerful hardware, but OEMs will also have to license this technology from Qualcomm. Still, that’ll probably be cheaper than developing similar in-house solutions. The first phones with support for these features won’t be out until sometime next year.
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