Apple is planning to add next-generation 3D scanning cameras to iPads and iPhones, says reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo (via MacRumors), enabling instant creation of 3D models for productivity, AR, and photographic applications. The new hardware is expected to arrive on Apple’s tablets first, either late in 2019 or early in 2020, followed soon thereafter by phones.

At this point, Kuo believes there’s a greater than 50 percent chance that the next-generation iPad will include a new time of flight (ToF) depth-sensing camera, which uses an advanced light-gathering system to measure the distance between the camera and points within an image. As Kuo explains it, the feature would have several key applications:

  • 3D models could be captured in real time by the camera in an iPad, then edited using an Apple Pencil.
  • A “new AR experience” — no details given — could be offered by iPhone.
  • Improved photo quality could be delivered by the iPhone, presumably with greater portrait-style blurring and 3D depth than current iPhone cameras can offer.

While Kuo doesn’t elaborate upon the AR experience, the potential is clear to anyone who has been following recent developments in the 5G, AR, and ToF-style camera spaces. In the past, ToF cameras were used to scan basic positional or gesture data from subjects in a room, fueling Microsoft’s applications with the Kinect camera system. More recently, they (and less efficient alternatives) have been used to create scans of moving subjects that can be sent over the internet — if you have the bandwidth to do so.

Above: Softkinetic developed time-of-flight technology to recognize 3D imagery, and was acquired by Sony in 2015.

Image Credit: Softkinetic

Multiple companies are now testing 3D-scanning cameras capable of creating holographic versions of people, using high-bandwidth connections to allow real-time 3D video chats. Holographic calls are expected to be a selling point for 5G phones, but very demanding on data plans.

Just as Apple used its first front-facing camera for FaceTime and its depth-sensing cameras for Animoji and Memoji, it’s easy to imagine a next-generation FaceTime 3D or FaceTime AR experience including photorealistic “holograms” of friends and family. Like 5G modem and antenna chips, the challenge is miniaturizing all the necessary hardware to fit inside portable devices. Kuo believes ToF will come to iPhones in the second half of 2020 “at the latest.”

As an interim step forward, the report also notes that 2019’s iPhones will include an improved Face ID camera system with a more powerful flood illuminator, capable of reducing inaccurate scans from ambient light. Kuo expects that Apple will continue to offer two OLED iPhone models as sequels to the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, as well as one LCD model that will follow up the iPhone XR.