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Newly acquired Apple patent shows how 3D photography could work in iPhone

With devices such as Google’s Project Tango, it seems like 3D photography is only a footstep away of becoming commonplace in mobile devices. Dedicated stereoscopic digital cameras have been available for a while – think of the Fujifilm Real 3D W1 and W3 – but they often came at a high price with low image quality and questionable 3D capability. However, thanks to a patent that Apple recently acquired, we could soon see 3D photography added to the iPhone via a simple app and one lens.

What all stereoscopic imaging techniques have in common is that they create 3D images by mimicking the way we see things in real life. Just like how human vision works with two image capturing devices – our eyes – 3D images can be created by placing two cameras (or lenses) side-by-side at a certain distance, and merging the resulting image into one stereoscopic image.

FujiFilm FinePix Real 3D W3
The Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W3 is an example of a digital stereoscopic camera, but it requires two lenses and results aren’t always perfect.

There are multiple ways of looking at the resulting image: via a special 3D screen, by displaying the images side-by-side and crossing the eyes to make them overlap, or with so-called anaglyph glasses. The latter is the cheapest option, as anaglyph glasses provide little more than a differently tinted glass element in front of each eye. Equally, anaglyph 3D images consist of two overlapping images with different colors.

So when there’s a cost-effective way of viewing stereoscopic images, there must also be a cost-effective way of creating stereoscopic images, no? A chief problem with 3D photography that uses two lenses is that these are either at a fixed distance to each other (see the Fujifilm cameras mentioned above,) which doesn’t always guarantee ideal results, or that the two image-capturing devices are separated and can be moved closer together or further apart, but need to be triggered at the exact same time.

There is, however, a way to capture 3D images using only a single camera, which is by shifting perspective between the first and the second exposure. This is exactly what the patent that Apple acquired suggests: It sketches a device that allows the user to create anaglyph 3D images by shifting their perspective between the capture of the left-eye and the right-eye image.

An example of an anaglyph 3D image.
An example of an anaglyph 3D image. (Credit: Kúla Deeper)

In order to achieve the desired 3D effect, which depends on how far the subject is away from the camera, and how strongly the foreground and background are separated from each other, the solution sketched in the patent would display a live-processed anaglyph 3D image while the user changes perspective, so that they get real-time feedback about the stereoscopic effect.

Since Apple has recently acquired this patent from its inventor, Ken Parulski, it is entirely within in the realm of possibility that we’ll soon see an iPhone app that allows us to take anaglyph stereoscopic images using just a single camera, by shifting our perspective during capture while looking at a live preview that shows us whether the desired 3D effect has been achieved.

Apple has been dabbling with 3D for some time, such as filing patents for 3D goggles and glasses-free displays. As it always is with patents, there’s no way to say for sure whether Apple will create such an app for the iPhone, or whether the company will work on any kind of 3D imaging device at all. But the method sketched in this patent is so simple and effective that we can think of no sensible reason why Apple shouldn’t, especially with competitors like Amazon adding 3D-related features into their devices.

(Via Patently Apple)

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