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With the evolution of the smartphone camera over time, we have seen some great phones with amazing cameras in the past couple of years. Every year users are greeted with a new kind of tech in smartphones, the punch-hole front camera is a great example. Manufacturers are also upping their game with multiple cameras and among all this, the term “3D ToF camera” is being used rather loosely.

The latest Honor V20, as well as the recently launched Oppo R17 Pro, are the first two phones that come with a 3D ToF camera along with their main snappers. The “ToF” stands for “Time of Flight”.

So what is this 3D ToF camera and what does it actually do? How long has it been around for and are there any practical applications for smartphones? Read on to know all the answers.

What is a 3D ToF Camera?

3D ToF camera in Oppo R17 Pro
3D ToF camera in Oppo R17 Pro

A 3DToF camera has an infrared sensor that emits light. The light bounces on the subject of the picture and then returns back to the sensor. The more your subject is away from the camera, the more time light will take to reach back to the sensor.

Depending upon the time of light reaching back, the camera measures the depth in the picture. If there are more than one subjects in the picture, the light from the farther subject will take more time to reach the sensor so the camera will measure the time from all the subjects and will know which subject has more distance from the sensor depending upon the time light reaching back.

This technology has a certain edge over others. Because of its depth mapping capabilities, it can accurately measure distances and depth in scenes. This imaging technique falls under the range imaging which is why it is also known as a range camera and sometimes a 3D sensor.

What Can a 3D ToF Camera do?

It is the kind of technology that can never fall short of practical implications. A 3D ToF camera can be used in cars to avoid obstacles. Other uses include gesture recognition in gadgets, object tracking and scanning as well as navigation.

While there are a million possibilities about the real-life applications of 3D ToF camera, it is highly likely that in a smartphone this tech will only be used for Augmented Reality content, portrait mode pictures, and 3D photography.

3D ToF technology in cars
Cars can detect objects and other cars with 3D ToF technology

As for the portrait photos, Time-of-Flight cameras can blur the background of the subject in a far better and sophisticated way. Other than that such cameras can also improve low light photography because they have a light source of their own so they need to be dependent on the external light source and so can map the picture and distance from subject even in pitch black scenarios.

Is This a New Technology?

No, ToF camera technology is certainly not the latest but admittedly, it has made its way to smartphones just now. Almost all the top-selling smartphone brands in the world are making efforts to excel in this technology now.

Microsoft Kinect with 3D ToF camera setup
Microsoft Kinect with 3D ToF camera setup

Major tech giants have been experimenting with it for almost a decade now. Microsoft has used such cameras in the second generation of their Kinect device. Other than that LIDAR, a company famous for self-driving cars also uses 3D ToF camera in its vehicles.

While this technology may not be new, we have recently seen it for the first time on a consumer level such as smartphones. Keeping mind its usefulness, we do hope that it will surely enlist in the top trends of 2019 and there will be many more smartphones with this technology launched in the coming years.


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