Mar 30, 2012Science and Technology
Apple's 3D imaging sensor brings portable tech to the next level

Apple's 3D imaging could one day make apps like Abbey 3D -- an app for Android, iPhone and iPad that gives virtual Westminster Abbey tours -- obsolete, as users create their own custom 3D collections

3D imaging is the next breakthrough in photo technology. So far, the results have been lackluster at best. Current 3D imaging cameras can give a rough idea of depth, but they cannot capture the shape of objects in three dimensions. Other 3D cameras can accurately capture the three-dimensional shape of an object, but can’t accurately represent depth. As such, currently existing imaging technology often can’t distinguish between small objects close to your camera and large objects far away from the lens.

Apple aims to change all that with a new 3D imaging patent. The actual three-dimensional camera might take one of several forms, including:

• A 3D camera made of a series of sensors that capture both polarized and non-polarized images. A processing module will then combine three images to create a 3D image.

• A similar apparatus that uses both polarized chrominance images and luminescent images to create a 3D image.

• Another series of three images that uses non-polarized imaging to derive depth information and enough information about the surfaces of the image to reproduce it in three dimensions.

Apple anticipates that 3D imaging technology will be a popular new addition to all gadgets under the sun, from tablet computers to smartphones. The consumer applications of the technology are obvious: How long will it be until Instagram is compatible with the new technology? Once 3D cameras hit the streets in consumer-level electronics, everyone will have to have one, if only to say that they can take 3D images.

Still, the applications of such a device go far beyond posting 3D pictures of your new kitten on social media. In particular, the applications for engineering and medicine are promising. There are situations where a 2D image just won’t do when researchers and practitioners are trying to communicate over long distances, as is increasingly common in the 21st Century. Doctors stuck with a particularly difficult surgical problem can consult with other professionals using images that are worth decidedly more than 1,000 words.

Education presents another area where 3D imaging can have an impact far beyond novelty. While a 3D mockup of a heart can help a classroom full of medical students, a 3D image of an actual heart from an actual patient in an actual medical case will allow far greater 'real world' experience in the virtual realm. Any field where 3D models will help, but where it is impractical for students and trainees to work on the real thing, will benefit greatly from 3D imaging technology being taken to the next level.

A visitor stands at the "Time of Doubles" art installation by Korean 3D sculptor Haru Ji and art-science researcher Graham Wakefield at the Siggraph Asia conference and exhibition in Hong KongFinally, there’s the prospect of a boom in digital art. While certainly not as crucial as allowing medical students to closely examine real hearts, it’s interesting to contemplate what the digital artists of today will do with the new technology. Apple’s 3D patent is capable of capturing human gestures such as winks. A boom in 3D imaging is totally on the table, not just in consumer electronics, but at the level of cinema and television as well.

Still, consumers have largely been disinterested in 3D technology thus far. Three-dimensional movies have been the subject of widespread criticism, both by professional critics and the general public. While there’s something cool about being able to take a 3D image of your own and post it to Facebook, it’s not clear that the Apple device overcomes the base problem of 'who cares?' It’s entirely possible that the device will remain in the field of academia, engineering, medicine and high tech, with only a small core of dedicated followers at the consumer level.


Solves existing problems in digital imaging. Allows for numerous uses in education, medicine, engineering and high tech. Brings the technology to the consumer level, allowing for applications in social media and networking. 


Perhaps a novelty for most consumers. Not much demand in the broader market, though the niche applications are great. 

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