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Apple Invents a Structured-Light Projector for Cameras that Could Capture 3D Data

10.7 - New Patents
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On Tuesday Patently Apple posted a granted patent report titled "Apple Wins a Patent that may Relate to the new iPhone 7 Dual Camera System." The patent related to a future camera system that is likely to first debut on the iPhone 7. Beyond having a dual lens camera, Apple's new camera system will include a tiny projector element that is designed to collect data from the image that the camera is focused on so as to be able to collect 3D data capable of recreating a 3D image that will allow photographers to access advanced editing features like refocusing a photo after it's taken. Our cover graphic is from Intel that is promoting their 3D camera known as RealSense. Intel illustrates the projector scanning an image for 3D data in realtime and is shown as a grid that's invisible to the user taking the photo.


Today, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that is yet another PrimeSense original invention titled "Integrated structured-light projector." The patent filing notes that "Miniature optical projectors are used in a variety of applications. For example, such projectors may be used to cast a pattern of coded or structured light onto an object for purposes of 3D mapping (also known as depth mapping)," as illustrated in our cover graphic.


Apple's invention describes an illumination assembly in which a light source, such as a laser diode or LED, transilluminates a transparency with optical radiation so as to project a pattern onto the object. An image capture assembly captures an image of the pattern that is projected onto the object, and a processor processes the image so as to reconstruct a three-dimensional (3D) map of the object.


In one embodiment, the transparency comprises an array of micro-lenses arranged in a non-uniform pattern. The micro-lenses generate a corresponding pattern of focal spots, which is projected onto the object.


Apple's patent FIGS. 7A to 7C illustrated below are schematic side views of projectors comprising integrated optical projection module.


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Apple specifically notes that FIG. 7A is a schematic side view of a projector 110 comprising integrated optical projection module #70 containing a vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (or VCSEL) array. In the projector, module 70 is attached above a main chassis or printed circuit board of the product in which projector is integrated, with product covers #114 and #116 below and above (typically comprising plastic or glass).


A beam #118 emitted from the device impinges on lens #74 and a diffractive optical element (DOE) #72, at a distance from the device that is chosen in order to give the desired pattern density. In the projector configuration shown in FIG. 7A, this distance is the key factor in the overall thickness (in the Z-direction) of the product.


Apple's continuation patent application 20160197452 was filed in Q1 2016, with their original work dating back to 2010. Engineers are likely the only ones that will be able to follow the logic and processes presented in today's patent filing. But for anyone wanting to check out the details, click here.


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