Apple is working on Optical Image Stabilization and improved Autofocus for iPhone camera

Apple never cared much about megapixel count in iPhone cameras. They started with 2 megapixels in the original iPhone, when Nokia was already shipping smartphones with 5 megapixel modules. It took Apple 3 years to get to by then standard 5 megapixels in iPhone 4. And its latest iPhones are still stuck with 8 megapixel sensors, when every other flagship smartphone comes with 13 megapixels or more.

Despite that, every iPhone review comes to the conclusion that Apple’s handsets are among the best camera phones out there, handily beating any rival Android, with only viable competition coming from Nokia.  Which proves that Apple was right to focus on better lenses, bigger pixels and sensors, advanced image processing algorithms, and not the pixel count. The only thing disappointing about 8 megapixel iPhone 5S  camera was the lack of optical image stabilization, which allows for much better low light performance and better videos.

But the lack of OIS in iPhone 5S doesn’t mean that Apple is doesn’t care about it. In fact, we can now confirm that Apple is indeed working on optical image stabilization and improved autofocus system for iPhone cameras. Yesterday Apple’s patent application called “VCM OIS actuator module” was published on USPTO. It describes how Apple plans to go about adding OIS and improved autofocus in future iPhones.

iPhone OIS patent

Apple will be using voice coil motor actuators to move the camera lens in various directions around the optical axis to provide both – better autofocus and OIS:

Actuator module may have integrated therein a mechanism to provide the AF function and a mechanism to provide the OIS function. The AF mechanism is configured to both move the lens along the optical axis and actively tilt the lens. The lens tilt may be used to compensate for parasitic lens movements due to, for example, tilting of the device within which actuator module is implemented. The OIS mechanism is configured to move (e.g., shift) the lens in directions orthogonal to the optical axis to correct for handshake motions in the center of the image. By shifting, as opposed to tilting the entire camera (e.g., the lens and image sensor together as a rigid body), the associated image sensor substrate can remain stationary, substantially simplifying both camera manufacture, size and packaging in the mobile electronic device.

It is unclear how far Apple has advanced with its OIS/AF system. But patent filing dates show that they have now been working on it at least since early 2012, and should be pretty far along towards a viable commercial product. Yesterday’s rumors about iPhone 6 camera with OIS point towards the same, as well.

Source: USPTO

Author: Stasys Bielinis

While I like to play with the latest gadgets, I am even more interested in broad technology trends. With mobile now taking over the world - following the latest technology news, looking for insights, sharing and discussing them with passionate audience - it's hard to imagine a better place for me to be. You can find me on Twitter as @UVStaska'

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  • disqus_P1JZFHum2q

    No need for improvement, the isheep are already waiting in line and paying top dollar for the limited options and poor battery life.

  • afwafawfw

    OIS isn’t as good as everyone thinks. Have a Lumia 920 and it’s basically impossible to take night time photos of people moving, say at a party or club, without getting massive amounts of blur because of the increased shutter time. Hopefully Apple is smarter than Nokia and reduces the shutter time when the viewfinder detects movement.

  • WP7Mango

    Actually, that’s because the 920 uses LED flash. If you had a Lumia 1020 which uses a much more powerful Xenon flash, you WOULD be able to freeze the motion blur which you are currently experiencing.

  • afwafawfw

    I’m obviously talking about taking photos w/o flash.

  • WP7Mango

    OK, but simple laws of physics apply. In order to increase the shutter speed and therefore decrease the time opened, you need to capture more light. The Xenon flash is one way to solve this. Another way is to make the lens physically bigger so that it lets in more light, but this obviously adds bulk. Another way is to make the pixels bigger so that they are more sensitive to light, but that makes the sensor bigger if you want to keep the same resolution, which also adds bulk and other optical complexities.

    Your idea of simply reducing shutter time (increasing shutter speed) when detecting movement won’t work – you might reduce blur, but you’ll get a darker image with poor dynamic range, or maybe bright enough image but with lots of noise and poor detail.

    Anyway, if you think Apple is working on improving the camera, rest assured that Nokia is too.

  • afwafawfw

    You are correct, however, my point is that increased exposure time thanks to the OIS is great for nighttime photography of say a beach or landscape, but not at a party or club with moving people. It doesn’t matter if the picture is bright if the person you are trying to capture is blurry.

    Also, with the 920 and even more so with the 925 which was launched with the slogan “more than your eyes can see”, Nokia has really gone crazy with the use of OIS/long exposure times, capturing photos that are way brighter than the scene is in real life. They are actually so bright that you could mistake them for being taken with a flash! This makes no sense, if I want lots of light I use the flash, if I turn of the flash I want to capture pictures as close to real life as possible. With this in consideration, I think there’s a lot of headroom for decreasing the exposure time and produce photos that are both less blurry and have more accurate levels of light.

  • WP7Mango

    You already have this control if you want. That’s what the Nokia Pro Camera app is for. You can increase the shutter speed, increase the ISO, turn off the flash, and still utilise the OIS to get the picture that you want.

  • afwafawfw

    Try capture the moment when you have to ask your friends to stand still for 5 minutes while you manually try different iso, exposure time and light settings. Apple may be a bit slower at introducing new tech but they usually think things through and make it right when they do.

  • WP7Mango

    Nokia got it right too. What makes you think they haven’t thought it through? You don’t have to manually adjust all those things – you can set them all to auto, or some of them to auto, or whatever combination you want. The tutorials even explain what you need to do to optimise your low-light pics in order to reduce blur. In fact, you only need to tweak the ISO to get the results you want, but that can also be set to auto and the camera software continuously makes the necessary adjustments automatically.

    But the fact is, the 920 is not as good as the 1020 for taking pics. That’s simply technology progressing.

  • WP7Mango

    If you want to keep things simple, the Nokia Pro Camera app also has default settings for night mode and sports mode. So you don’t even have to mess with any of the special camera settings.

  • afwafawfw

    Night mode increases the exposure time even more. I’ve made my point clear and will end the discussion for my part.

  • WP7Mango

    So use sports mode.

    Yes you’ve made your point clear – you don’t have a Lumia 1020 and therefore your pictures won’t be as good.

  • WP7Mango

    BTW, night mode and sports mode IS in the Nokia Pro camera app. Maybe I’m using a later version than you.

  • EttieBeecroft

    Good Work by the Apple for the Optical Image.
    http://purelifecleansemexico.com/

  • Eric

    Actually if you hold down the shutter button it will take a series of pictures with different stops (light settings). You pick the best later.

  • afwafawfw

    Does not work on my 920 with black and Nokia camera.

  • Eric

    Nokia Camera -> Settings -> Bracketing.
    You set the exposure number to either 3 or 5 picture.
    You set the exposure range to either
    -0.5 to +0.5 Stops
    -1 to +1 or
    -2 to 2.

  • Eric

    For testing purposes I would suggest a big change like +-2. It is quite noticeable. You won’t need to hold the shutter after you set it. It is automatic.

  • afwafawfw

    You mean like that.. yea i dont find that practical at all, you have to hold the phone in shooting position longer and when normally taking maybe 3-4 pics to get a good smile or whatever you now end up with 9-12 pictures to choose from. And really, why should I do the work that the Nokia engineers should’ve done.

  • Eric

    No, you end up with either 3 or 5, not 9-12. Also who is a nokia engineer to say how my pictures should look. The nokia line have every setting a real camera would.

    The ability to automatically take a few shots at different stops because you’re not a pro but can pic out a good picture is a useful feature.

  • afwafawfw

    3×3, 3×4, 3×5 etc

  • Eric

    If you take one set of three, and decide in your club a stop of +2 is best. Stop taking bracketed pictures and set the +2 stop from the main UI.

  • Eric

    Just spent some time playing with my 920 in the kitchen with the lights off. If you want unblurred pictures turn up the ISO setting.

  • afwafawfw

    Well i tend not go to clubs that have the exact same lightning conditions in every spot of the club..

  • Eric

    Increase ISO, leave other settings on AUTO. The affect is to decrease shutter time automatically. That is what you want from the engineers?

    In the past if you wanted to take action pictures with dim conditions you got fast film. Maybe that part of collective knowledge is lost.

  • afwafawfw

    As i’ve already said, there is no time to fiddle around to test which iso setting works the best for every photo when trying to capture the moment. You do that with your DSLR in a photo session.

  • afwafawfw

    No, ISO3200 doesnt work very good when a spotlight all of a sudden shines your way. Are you just ignorant or what is it that you guys dont understand?

  • Eric

    If you are in a dark place with movement you want a high ISO for the whole night. If you are taking pictures of mount Rushmore at midnight set the ISO low. I’m not suggesting you tweak it for every shot, just change it when you go to a club.
    The high iso will work fine whether some one is twerking on the dance floor or sleeping in a corner.

  • Eric

    Before this conversation degenerates, I’m going to exit with a final suggestion. I don’t believe any camera on earth will meet your expectations. I suggest you talk with a professional photographer to find out if your expectations are achievable.

    I’m only a professional astronomer. We take faint pictures with long exposure times while trying to maintain a stable camera. We have to deal with setting the ISO, exposure time, and shutter speed to get the best result. I’m impressed with the technology in the Lumia series, but I don’t believe you care for my opinion.

  • afwafawfw

    Yes but you dont want an unnecessary high iso when there happen to be sufficient light since you just introduce noise. There is a point with auto iso. And even if you would try do what you describe, the nokia camera app doesnt remember the iso setting next time you open the app.

  • afwafawfw

    Its really simple, when the viewfinder detects movement it should prioritize blur free pictures, instead of overly bright and blurry images, by using shorter exposure times.

  • Eric

    Well, if we can keep this respectful,

    That is what the changeable ISO is for. The problem is the individual pixel in every digital camera can only hold so many electrons, which are generated by incoming photons. If you are trying to capture a faint source and there is a bright light you will physically saturate the pixels picking up the bright light before you have enough signal to get a good dark image.

    Changing the ISO makes it easier to get an image in darker conditions by multiplying the number of electrons you get for each photon, but this causes saturation faster. The only way around this is more, smaller pixels and a physically larger lens.

    You can’t have it everyway. If you are looking at something moving => Fast shutter, if it is dark and a quick shutter => high ISO => If something is bright in the field of view => Partial saturation.

    Luckily if you have a nokia 1020, you can get the raw image and recover most of this.