iPhone 11: Apple Event Invite May Hint at the Future of Smartphone Cameras

Is Apple about to redesign the phone camera?

iPhone camera

Has Apple dropped a hint about the iPhone 11 camera? A patent application from three years ago bears similarities to the company’s most recent event invite, sent out on August 29 for an event to be held on September 10.

Next Tuesday’s event is widely expected to see the launch of the iPhone 11, Apple’s next flagship model. Rumors point to three new models unveiled at the event: a 6.1-inch LCD version that upgrades the iPhone XR, a 5.8-inch OLED model to supersede the iPhone XS, and a 6.5-inch OLED model that sits at the top end as a successor to the iPhone XS Max. 5G, unfortunately, will have to wait until 2020.

The new devices are expected to retain the same form factor as their predecessors, but the biggest changes could come as part of the camera. The 6.1-inch model is expected to receive a second rear camera lens like the more expensive versions, offering an optical zoom. On the other two models, a third wider-angle lens may be added that uses A.I. to automatically fit people and objects into frame.

This may be where the event invite comes into play. The glass-and-colorful Apple logo may give clout to a rumor from July, which suggested Apple could return to its 1980s rainbow-style logo for some products. The glass elements, resembling a lens, could also hint at new camera upgrades.

Popular Science editor Stan Horaczek posted on Twitter Thursday that the invite looks quite similar to a patent filed by Apple three years ago. Here is the invite:

The event invite sent out to media representatives.
The event invite sent out to media representatives.

And here is a technical drawing from a 2016 patent titled “Small form factor high-resolution camera”:

Apple's smartphone patent from three years ago.
Apple's smartphone patent from three years ago.

Rotating the drawing gives a clearer picture of what the patent describes:

The patent drawing, rotated.
The patent drawing, rotated.

The patent describes a technology that could improve image quality while keeping the phone relatively thin. The abstract notes:

The camera may be implemented in a small package size while still capturing sharp, high-resolution images, making the camera suitable for use in small devices.

iPhone cameras today use a flat sensor to capture light. Over the sensor, a lens helps take in light and focus it onto the flat sensor, just like other digital cameras. The iPhone XS has a camera with a six-element lens.

This patent would introduce a curved sensor to the iPhone. That means it uses more depth than the flat sensor, but also means it could fit more sensor surface in the same length and width than a flat sensor.

In the patent, the described camera follows a notably simplified design with a smaller sensor. It only uses three elements, and measures just under two millimeters from the edge of the glass to the back of the sensor curve. The width of the sensor itself also measures around two millimeters. By comparison, the iPhone 6 Plus housed a sensor that measured 5.97 millimeters by 4.71 millimeters.

Using a curved sensor could reduce the complexity of the camera, as the lens does not need to correct the image to beam onto a flat surface. The end result is a camera that could offer an aperture wider than the f/1.8 found on the iPhone XS, while still capturing high-resolution images.

iPhone Event: Apple’s History of Hinting at Product Reveals

Apple has used its event invites to hint at product launches before. The iPhone 5 event invite cut a silhouette of a “5” in the shadow of the number “12.”

The iPhone 7 launch event in 2016 also hinted at changes to the camera system. The invite showed the Apple logo in a bokeh effect, hinting at the then-upcoming dual-lens camera system set to debut.

The 2016 invitation Apple sent to the media.
The invitation Apple sent to the media.

For last year’s iPhone XS event, the company focused the invite on the newly-built Steve Jobs Theater, located next to the spaceship-shaped headquarters at the company’s new campus in Cupertino, California. The invite also hinted at the new gold color for the iPhone XS. Apple is expected to unveil the next-generation device at the same location.

apple invites gather round
The iPhone XS event invite.

Whether Apple overhauls the camera system at next week’s event, as expected, remains to be seen.