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Apple Patent Dives into Optical Sensing Cameras via Single-Photon Detectors Avalanche Diodes (SPADs) for Face ID & In-Air Gesturing

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Today the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple relating to Apple's 3D TrueDepth camera used for Face ID and to capture in-air hand gesture controls in the future. Apple is now in race with Google, Samsung and Microsoft to bring this feature to market on a variety of devices from Notebooks to VR headsets.


In late December 2018 Patently Apple posted a report titled "Apple could be onboard the 2019 3D Camera trend for Smartphones that will introduce In-Air Gesture Controls." The report covered a new 3D camera module from Sony that provided the capability of adding in-air gestures controls for apps and games as noted in the photo below.


2 in-air gesturing


Apple's patent FIG. 1 below is a schematic side view of a depth-sensing apparatus (#20) used to generate depth maps of a scene including an object #22 which is a user's in-air command.


To generate the depth map, an illumination assembly (#24) directs pulses of light towards the hand and an imaging assembly measures the ToF (Time of Flight) of the photons reflected from the hand.  The term "light" refers to optical radiation, which may be in any of the visible, infrared, and ultraviolet ranges.


3 in-air gesturing  apple patent fig. 1


The illumination assembly #24 typically comprises a pulsed laser #28, which emits short pulses of light, with pulse duration in the nanosecond range and repetition frequency in the range of 0.5-50 MHz, for example.  


Projection optics #30 direct the light towards the hand. Alternatively, other pulse durations and repetition frequencies may be used, depending on application requirements.  


It should be noted that patent FIG. 1 is shown working with a Mac, though technically it could be for an iDevice as well.


Today's patent is deadly focused on optical sensing via single-photon avalanche diodes (SPADs) rather than the application of Face ID or in-air gesturing that the technology will support.


Apple's patent application 20210165083 was filed in late October 2020 and published today by the U.S. Patent Office. All three inventors work at Apple's Israeli facility. Considering that this is a patent application, the timing of such a product to market is unknown at this time.


For the record, Apple has been working on this technology for years, especially after acquiring Israeli firm PrimeSense that was behind the TrueDepth camera. A few other patents as examples of their work in this field could be found here: 0102 (for Apple TV) 03 and 04 for future Macs.


In-Air gesturing is a feature that Microsoft, Google and Samsung are working on for different applications. Samsung is working on in-air gesturing working with a future HMD as presented below. Microsoft was granted patent 10,242,255 in 2019 for such a feature.


4 samsung  google in-air gesturing patent figures


10.51FX - Patent Application Bar


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