Complimenting yesterday’s report that Apple may keep the 8-megapixel image sensor for the next iPhone’s camera and instead focus on image stabilization and software to improve image quality, it was revealed that the Cupertino company has applied for a patent to do exactly that. As discovered by Unwired View and shared by MacRumors, Apple’s patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office focuses on optical image stabilization techniques and improved autofocus for small integrated cameras.
Apple has already introduced software-based optical image stabilization and autofocus features into iOS. As described by the patent application, the company may look to augment those features with hardware-based counterparts. Voice coil motors could move the camera lens in various directions to assist with both image stabilization and autofocus, depending on the need:
In one embodiment, the AF mechanism may be configured with four separate magnets and four separate coils positioned around a lens carrier. Each coil can deliver a force on one corner of the lens carrier along the optical axis. In this way, if the four coils are driven appropriately with a common mode current they can provide the forces needed to focus the lens. However, if driven differentially, they can actively tilt the lens to compensate for parasitic lens tilt....
The actuator module further incorporates an OIS mechanism configured to shift the lens carrier (and, in one embodiment, the AF mechanism attached to the lens carrier) in directions orthogonal to the optical axis...The combination of the AF mechanism and OIS mechanism within a single actuator module allows the actuator module to modify the position of the lens relative to the image sensor along five different axes (i.e., 5 degrees of freedom (DOF)). Representatively, the lens may be shifted or translated along at least three different axes and rotated about at least two different axes.
Although only published on Thursday, Apple filed the patent application on October 25, 2012, so the company has clearly had time to develop the idea further since then. It lists a single inventor, Richard J. Topliss, who joined Apple in January 2012 as Senior Camera Technology Specialist. Previously, Mr. Topliss worked for nearly 12 years at Cambridge Mechatronics, which is itself currently working on optical image stabilization actuators for mobile devices.
As always, Apple’s patent applications are no guarantee that we’ll see the described technology hit the market – the company has patented many awesome and crazy things over the years that have yet to see the light of day – but with a desire to stay out of the “megapixel race” in mobile imaging, we wouldn’t be surprised to see this process land in customers' devices in the near future.