Apple Patent Hints at Lytro-Like Lens For iPhone

It would be able to swap back and forth from plenoptic to standard photography

apple patent

apple patent

When the Lytro was first announced in 2011 we were wowed by the potential of light field photography. And it seems we weren't the only one, as soon after, Apple filed its own patent for a plenoptic lens, a patent which it has just been awarded.

What makes Apple's patent newsworthy is that it's for more than just a microlens array that would allow you to focus after the fact. It's actually for a plenoptic adapter, a microlens system that would sit between a standard lens and the sensor, but then could be moved out of the way to function as normal. So rather than being stuck with low size and quality light field photos that you can focus after the fact, you could switch between that and standard imaging at will.

Here's how the patent describes it: adaptor that can be inserted between the imaging lens and the image sensor to provide the low-resolution refocusable mode and can be removed to provide the high-resolution non-refocusable mode, the adaptor including: a microlens array with a plurality of microlenses, a first lens mounting interface for mounting the adaptor to the camera body, and a second lens mounting interface for mounting the removable image lens to the adaptor; wherein, when the adaptor is inserted to provide the low-resolution refocusable mode, the microlens array is positioned between the imaging lens and the image sensor.

It's not hard to imagine how a patent like this would be useful. The major downside of the Lytro system is that the images simply aren't that great, despite being very interesting. By being able to swap at will between plenoptic and normal photography, you would just be able to use whichever one you'd find most useful at the moment.

Now the big question is how, and if, Apple will use this patent. A great number of such developments never see the light of day, and are just kept in the company's patent library, unused. But, theoretically, this microlens adapter could work with just about any camera, as long as there's space to move the array out of the way when not in use. The patent even takes time to mention DSLRs, saying:

Digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras are an example of one type of digital camera system that commonly uses removable imaging lenses 610. Typically, the SLR camera bodies include a movable mirror which can direct imaging light toward an optical viewfinder during the time that the user is composing the image. The mirror is then repositioned away from the optical path of the imaging lens 610 when the user activates the image capture control. To use such a camera with a plenoptic adaptor 640 as in FIG. 8, it may be necessary to use a special mirror lock mode where the mirror is locked in the picture taking mode. In this case, image data provided by the sensor array is used to provide a preview image on the image display 32 (FIG. 1) during the image composition process.

We'll just have to wait and see what Apple has in mind for this patent.