Sony is, apparently, sticking around in the smartphone market to ensure it’s ready to pounce when the next big thing arrives. Perhaps it’s expecting the industry’s next leap to involve 3D imaging and augmented reality, as this is what Sony’s engineers are working on at its Atsugi Technology Center in Tokyo.
The company is developing infrared 3D sensors designed for smartphones and augmented reality products, ranging from industrial equipment to self-driving cars. These sensors are said to be able to map 3D environments and even detect objects and people in a scene. According to an October 2017 report from Bloomberg, Sony intends to begin mass production of these sensors later this year, and they could arrive in products before the end of 2018 or in early 2019. It’s a market estimated to be worth around $4.5 billion by 2022, according to Yole Developpement.
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Sony isn’t the first to start work on smart 3D mapping sensors and technology. Google’s Tango technology appeared inside two commercial smartphones, though the search giant is now focused on its more universal ARCore technology instead. Intel has also continued to invest in its RealSense hardware and platform, which provides similar functionality.
Much like RealSense and Tango, Sony’s implementation relies on a combination of infrared light pulses and complimentary sensors that record the time taken for a pulse to bounce back in order to calculate its distance. These are known as time-of-flight (TOF) sensors.
At its most basic implementation, like in a rangefinder, a single infrared illumination unit is paired up with a receiving photodiode to record when the light returns. The distance of an object from the TOF sensor can be calculated by multiplying the return time with the speed of light (d = ct/2). In a sensor like the one Sony is developing, this is scaled up to include multiple infrared transmitters and receiving photodiodes into a single package or TOF camera, allowing for the capture of more complex scenes.
Instead of making images for the eyes of human beings, we’re creating them for the eyes of machines … Whether it’s AR in smartphones or sensors in self-driving cars, computers will have a way of understanding their environment.