Apple patents iPhone camera with 3 sensors for better low-light performance

BY Killian Bell

Published 24 Mar 2015


Apple is sometimes criticized for its decision to stick with an 8-megapixel camera sensor for the last four iPhones, but a new patent suggests it is working on a revolutionary new module consisting of three sensors that could improve low-light performance and color accuracy.

Entitled “Digital camera with light splitter,” the patent was granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this week after initially being filed for in 2011. It details a unique camera system that uses three different sensors to create a “prism-based” module.

Similar setups are typically found in prosumer video cameras and modern camcorders, and they’re used to split light into three wavelengths — or the colors red, green, and blue — using a prism system. The three wavelengths are then picked up by dedicated imaging sensors.

Using three sensors as opposed to just one allows cameras to more accurately capture light and eliminate the “wobble” effect often seen with today’s CMOS smartphone sensors. They can also lead to better low-light performance and more accurate colors.

“For its splitter assembly, Apple uses a cube arrangement constructed using four identical polyhedrons that meet at dichroic interfaces,” AppleInsider explains. “By coating each interface with an optical coating, particular wavelengths of incident light can be reflected or allowed to transmit through to an adjoining tetrahedron.”

Apple’s patent also describes how the module could also filter out other color sets, like cyan, yellow, green, and magenta (CYGM); and red, green, blue, and emerald (RGBE).

Apple has patented other camera sensors that use mirrors and optics to achieve optical image stabilization without increasing the size of the camera module. As always, there’s no guarantee any of its inventions will appear in future iPhones or other device, but they do provide us with a glimpse at what the Cupertino company is working on.

The iPhone’s camera has long been a focus for Apple. While it may have stuck with an 8-megapixel chip for several years, it has made welcome improvements with each iPhone that make it one of the best smartphone cameras on the market.

It’s no surprise to see the company exploring different camera technologies that could make it even better, then, but we’ll have to wait and see which ones — if any — make it to market.