Apple applied for a patent last year on an intriguing dual-lens camera system that could add significant photo and video functionality to future iPhones. While dual-lens camera systems are already present in several devices on the market, the patent application, published Thursday by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, describes how Apple could combine two separate cameras, each with different focal lengths, with custom software to improve the capabilities and functionality of the iPhone.
One such improvement concerns zoom functionality. The iPhone, like all fixed-focal-length cameras, must rely on 'digital zoom' -- magnifying the camera sensor's image -- to allow users to zoom in when taking photos. This results in reduced image quality of the final shot, with quality decreasing steadily as the level of digital zoom increases.
With a dual-lens system as described in the patent, each camera could have a different focal length, allowing for a hybrid type of optical zoom that won't result in degradation of image quality. As the iPhone would store both lenses' full sensor data, users may also be able to zoom without quality loss even after the shot is taken.
Another possibility of the described dual-lens system is the ability to take photos and videos simultaneously. Recent iPhones can already accomplish this feat, although the size and resolution of photos captured during video recording is significantly reduced. With a dual-lens system, each lens could be dedicated to one task, allowing for simultaneous capture of full-resolution images and HD video. The same principle could also apply to simultaneous capture of both high-resolution 4K video and lower-resolution high-frame rate slow-motion video.
The patent application describes how software aware of this dual-lens system could utilize the multiple streams of sensor data, with an app like iMovie allowing users to seamlessly switch views, insert still images into captured video, or display the camera lenses' output in a picture-in-picture-like format.
A dual-lens system could also facilitate advanced 3D imaging techniques that allow users to dynamically adjust a photo's focal point and depth of field after it has been captured, something that Apple has been rumored to be working on since it acquired imaging firm LinX in early 2015. Another possibility is using both lenses for parallax calculations to help map faces for image recognition or security purposes, a feature in line with several of Apple's recent acquisitions.