Kuo—2019 iPhone: upgraded Face ID; 2020 iPhone: time-of-flight 3D modeling rear camera

Respected supply chain analyst Ming-Chi Kuo with TF International Securities shared some interesting observations regarding 2019 and 2020 iPhone models in a note to clients today.

According to reporting from AppleInsider, MacRumors and 9to5Mac, iPhone models slated for release in 2019 and 2020 will feature an enhanced Face ID facial recognition thanks to a stronger flood illuminator in the front-facing TrueDepth camera system (2019 iPhone), as well as time-of-flight 3D modeling technology in the rear camera (2020 iPhone).

2019 iPhone: Face ID improvements

An improved 3D facial recognition system stemming from an upgraded TrueDepth camera that boosts the output power of the flood illuminator, which is basically a vertical cavity surface emitting laser (VCSEL), should result in an overall better Face ID experience on the next iPhone models that Kuo believes are slated for arrival in September 2019.

Among the limitations inherent to infrared-based systems like Face ID is their overall sensitivity to strong sources of the invisible infrared light. One example of that is using Face ID in bright sunlight, which causes the sensor to behave erratically and inconsistently.

Increasing the laser power will lessen the impact from the infrared light in the environment, leading to a faster, more consistent and more reliable Face ID experience with fewer failed unlocks and less frustration. The analyst has predicted that suppliers IQE, Win Semi and Lumentum will enjoy increased revenue as next year’s iPhones enter production.

Here’s the quote (emphasis ours):

We believe that Apple will raise the output power of the flood illuminator VCSEL to lower the impacts from invisible lights of environment in order to improve the Face ID user experience. The higher-power VCSEL with higher average selling price needs increased requirements of design and production, increased materials for array design and longer testing times. Therefore, the VCSEL supply chain can add higher value.

I wonder if using a stronger infrared light might affect our eyesight in the long run.

2020 iPhone: ToF 3D modeling camera

iPhone models released in 2020 may take Apple’s entire camera stack to the next level with the addition of so-called time-of-flight (ToF) range imaging sensor in the rear camera. In short, a ToF system calculates the time it takes for an emitted laser to bounce off surrounding objects and return to the phone to create a 3D picture of the environment.

Contrast this with Face ID which takes advantage of a so-called structured light technique that measures the distortions of the 30,000 projected infrared dots to calculate distance and generate a good-enough 3D model of your face for authentication.

Both do depth mapping, but only ToF allows for accurate 3D modeling and some other stuff.

But before iPhone, the system will debut on iPads due in the Christmas quarter of 2019. Its inclusion in the next iPad will allow customers to easily capture objects in full 3D with a little help from the rear camera, then edit them with ease using their Pencil.

This ToF system will also allow for some other things, including better photo quality and elevated augmented reality experiences on 2020 iPhone, added the reliable analyst.

From his note, emphasis ours:

We give a greater than 50% probability that the new iPad in 4Q19/1Q20 may adopt ToF (our previous forecast that the 2H19 new iPhone will not adopt ToF remains unchanged). We believe that 3D modeling captured by ToF and then edited by an Apple Pencil on an iPad will create an all-new productivity experience for design applications in a totally different manner from computers.

We estimate ToF will be adopted by iPhone in 2H20 at the latest. The iPhone’s adoption of ToF will create the new augmented reality experiences and improve photo quality. We expect that Apple’s ToF design may adopt the higher-than-1,000nm wavelength VCSEL (vs. current Face ID’s 935-945nm) for better system design and user experience.

Summing up, the following ToF benefits can be expected from 2020 iPhone and 2019 iPad:

  • Full 3D object capture
  • Improved range-finding
  • More precise AR overlays
  • Better object placement in AR
  • Better photo quality
  • Sharper image focusing
  • Better depth mapping
  • Dramatically improved portraiture photography

November 2017 report by Bloomberg first made the prediction that future iPhones, beginning with 2019 models, would feature both front and rear-facing 3D sensing capabilities.

Thoughts on Kuo’s thoughts on future iPhone camera hardware?