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What is a time-of-flight camera and how does it work?

When Huawei announced its P30 and P30 Pro models, the latest in its series of photography-focused phones, the time-of-flight camera won the day. You've probably noticed this piece of hardware on more smartphones lately, and the trend isn't about to stop there anytime soon.

But what is a time-of-flight camera and how does it work?

What is a time-of-flight camera?

What is a time-of-flight camera and how does it work?

ToF cameras are not new.

The technology has been around for a while, although the necessary processing speeds have slowed down the time it takes to bring depth-sensing technology to everyday devices. But they are still on the cutting edge of technology and are rapidly becoming more affordable, efficient and accessible.

Using its imaging sensor, a ToF camera works by projecting a pulse of infrared light rays into the scene, which bounce off the object and return to the camera.

The camera then measures the distance between each pixel in its range using the photosites of the CCD sensor. The scene is captured and measured, creating a 3D “map” of space, so there are no moving parts.

All of this happens in less than the blink of an eye as light travels 300,000 km per second, allowing it to get all the information it needs in nanoseconds. In short, everything must work very quickly, at the speed of light.

ToF cameras on phones

What is a time-of-flight camera and how does it work?

Current ToF cameras are available on the latest generation of phones such as Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, Huawei P30 Pro, Oppo RX17 Pro and LG G8 ThinQ.

These cell phones do not have only one camera. Several front cameras are available with a minimum of two and up to six different lenses, each with their sensors.

However, one of those additional front cameras will increasingly be a ToF sensor, which provides additional functionality and depth information. This is especially useful for gesture recognition or background blur to give a bokeh blur effect.

Ideally, ToF cameras will allow users more control over the display of subjects in photographs. You can also use them to measure distance, height, and width, especially in augmented reality applications.

For now, these cameras are limited to these applications. But now is a good time to get acquainted with the technology, because eventually it will be everywhere.

Have you ever used ToF technology? Or does your smartphone have a ToF camera? Share your experience in a comment below.