Apple has a new patent granted today by the USPTO (via AppleInsider) which describes a means for reducing the size of a key component of the iPhone (and iPad), making it possible to create ever-smaller gadgets with thinner frames. The piece in question is a camera autofocus module, and the patent describes use of a micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) which improves greatly in terms of both size and power efficiency over current designs.
The current means of handling autofocus on the iPhone involves using a so-called voice coil motor (VCM), which is reliable and simple but also power-hungry and slower. MEMS tech has recently become more viable for mass production, according to Apple’s patent, and if done correctly, actually results in a lower component cost than the legacy VCM tech. The tiny size has been the big stumbling block to wider use until now, since the manufacturing process required to put these out was highly specialized, but recent improvements have made it much easier.
So far, only rumors of smartphone makers using MEMS tech have been floated, without any actually appearing in shipping hardware just yet. MEMES tech would allow for not only faster autofocus, however, but also creative effects like post-capture refocusing of images, similar to what we’ve seen introduced from companies including Samsung and HTC, but with potentially better results.
Apple isn’t necessarily going to use this tech in its next iPhone, of course, but this does seem like a rich area for the company to explore in terms of the value of the return on investment for its products. Cupertino loves touting its mobile camera tech, and MEMS is one way to boost its profile in that regard even further. It’s not clear, however, whether the relatively new tech is ready yet for deployment on a mass scale with, say, an iPhone 6 device this fall.