Apple evolving periscope camera tech for possible iPhone integration

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Apple is continuing to develop technology for a folded camera system that could enable the use of more varied focal lengths and reduce the camera bump on a future iPhones while maintaining image quality.

The company has been working on a "folded camera" for years. That folded system could allow Apple to reduce the physical bulk of an iPhone's camera without compromising on features like telescopic zoom or optical image stabilization.

In its most recent patent covering similar technology, granted on July 13 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple continues to detail how a folded or periscope-like camera system could work.

The patent, simply titled "Folded camera," details a system that includes "two light folding elements such as prisms and an independent lens system, located between the two prisms, which includes an aperture stop and a lens stack."

Although the camera doesn't mention physical bulk, such a system could help reduce the size of the camera bump. Apple appears to be placing specific emphasis on allowing high-resolution images and complex camera technologies such as autofocus or optical image stabilization (OIS).

"The lens system may be moved on one or more axes independently of the prisms to provide autofocus and/or optical image stabilization for the camera. The shapes, materials, and arrangements of the refractive lens elements in the lens stack may be selected to capture high resolution, high quality images while providing a sufficiently long back focal length to accommodate the second prism," the patent reads.

According to the patent, conventional small cameras used in mobile devices "tend to capture images at lower resolutions and/or with lower image quality than can be achieved with larger, higher quality cameras."

Additionally, there are consumer expectations for smaller cameras to be equipped with higher pixel counts, larger pixel size image sensors, and more powerful photosensors. The challenge is to create a system that can "provide an imaging lens system that is capable of capturing high brightness, high resolution images under the physical constraints imposed by small form factor cameras."

To that end, the Apple patent details a system that could include folded elements like prisms and an independent lens system. The system may also include a lens stack with up to four or five lens elements with refractive power. In some embodiments of the technology, the lens system could move on one or more axes independently of the prisms, allowing for autofocus or OIS capabilities.

The patent lists Yuhong Yao and Miodrag Scepanovic. Yao has been named on several patents related to camera technology and folded camera systems, including a patent application from earlier in 2021.

Apple files for numerous patents weekly, so they're a poor indication of the company's future product plans. However, well-connected Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has said that Apple could debut a "periscope lens" setup by 2022.

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