It’s really hard to believe that it has been just a little over 8 years since Apple introduced the iPhone, the smartphone which more or less started the smartphone revolution. In 2014, close to 1.2 billion smartphones were shipped, with Apple and Samsung leading the pack. What a wild ride it has been, but it looks like all good things must come to an end.
For the first time since the smartphone revolution started, smartphone sales in some regions are decreasing, and at the very least in most other areas, sales are flattening out. In Q1, 2015, smartphone sales in China, the world’s largest market, dropped about 4% to under 100M units.
The reasons for the slowdown vary from region to region, but the overall theme is the same everywhere, most everyone on earth already has a smartphone, therefore the number of smartphones that they are buying is slowing. This comes as especially bad news to all the newer smartphone companies who have sprung up in the last few years. Their only means to survive in such a market is to offer smartphones which include unique features, thereby snagging sales away from the clutches of Apple and Samsung, at least until Apple and Samsung start incorporating these same features. This is where lasers come in. With semiconductor lasers small and cheap, and high processing power already in today’s smartphones, lasers look like they could be a great fit in a smartphone.
In my last blog I wrote about LG’s pre-production laser picoprojector smartphone, which definitely fits into this new smartphone feature category, but projecting with lasers is not the only way lasers are making it into smartphones. This week the Chinese company OnePlus, will be releasing its second smartphone, the OnePlus 2, which will include laser autofocusing. LG has also released several smartphones with laser autofocus dating back to 2014. Interestingly, the laser “autofocus” in these smartphones doesn’t actually focus the camera, because this would imply that something was actually aiming the laser at the subject, which isn’t the case. Instead, the laser provides the camera with rough distance information, especially at close range, so the conventional phase detection circuitry can lock on its target much faster knowing the rough distance to the subject.
While the first smartphone cameras with laser autofocus don’t actually precisely measure camera to subject distances for focusing, this technology is not that far off. In April a team at Caltech demonstrated a silicon chip which they call a nanophotonic coherent imager (NCI) which contains a 4-by-4 grid of LIDAR elements to precisely measure the distance to 16 locations, and they plan to scale up the device to much higher resolutions in the future.
The prospect of such a device in a smartphone camera is certainly tantalizing, but it’s not hard to imagine many other uses as well, such as self-driving vehicles, and applications in a smartphone could well extend well past just the camera. Although smartphone growth has slowed, expect that laser will still keep things very interesting.