Your next Android phone could have some wild depth-sensing abilities, if Qualcomm has anything to say about it. The company is starting to release details about its next flagship Snapdragon processor, and as part of that, it’s showing off some of the new features that are getting added to the second-generation image signal processor, called Spectra, that will be built into the upcoming chip.
Along with improvements to things like noise reduction and video stabilization, one of the biggest additions to Spectra is support for several new camera modules with advanced sensing features. Last year, with the Snapdragon 835, Qualcomm launched the Spectra Module Program, which offered manufacturers pre-built and pre-configured camera setups for companies to just slot right into phones using a Snapdragon processor. And with the upcoming second-generation Spectra image processor, Qualcomm is offering three new modules: one with iris scanning, one with passive depth sensing, and one with active depth sensing.
The iris scanner is perhaps the most familiar, due to Samsung’s own implementation on the Galaxy S8, but Qualcomm says that its version offers improved performance and accuracy, including the ability to successfully avoid being spoofed by images or molds of people’s eyes.
The passive depth sensor also works in a fairly standard way. It uses two camera lenses, spaced slightly apart, to let the phone compare two images and piece together the depth of objects in stereo, similar to how human eyes tell how far away something is.
But the most interesting of the three may be the active depth sensor, which uses an infrared illuminator to shine a pattern of thousands of IR dots, which an IR sensor can then view. By determining distortions in the pattern of dots, the phone can map depth far more accurately than the passive system. Then, the regular camera is used to provide normal color to the image, allowing an accurate 3D image to be created almost instantly. In addition to the improved accuracy, the active IR system also has added benefits of working in low-light situations, too.
Qualcomm hopes that phone companies will use the new sensors to further AR and VR on phones, as well as more secure face unlocking than what’s currently provided by traditional cameras.
While many of these technologies have existed before on smaller scales, it’s the fact that Qualcomm is making them off-the-shelf options for anyone using the next-generation Snapdragon chip that makes this so exciting. Qualcomm is expected to announce more information on the next flagship Snapdragon processor later this year, with the first devices offering it — as well as the new Spectra camera modules — expected to ship sometime in 2018.