As dozens of smartphone makers unveiled their latest hardware at Mobile World Congress earlier this month, the next phase of mobile innovation came into focus: The camera. As smartphones have become increasingly similar in design, performance and utility, their designers are turning to photography as a means to differentiate their work from the competition.
One of the more interesting examples, complete with 5x optical zoom lens, came from Oppo, a Chinese smartphone brand you’re sure to hear more about shortly. Other, more well-known brands, like Sony and Huawei, also touted their smartphones’ photography prowess. Samsung and Apple are sure to follow with camera innovations of their own in their next Galaxy and iPhone devices, respectively. (Apple is rumored to be introducing a 3D camera, for instance.)
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There’s good reason for smartphone makers to be leaning into camera tech. Whereas smartphone communication used to be about phone calls, texts and emails, it’s become an increasingly visual medium, thanks to apps like Snapchat and Instagram. Our mobile experience is becoming increasingly visual, and hardware companies will ignore that shift at their own peril.
The good news for us smartphone users is that innovations in mobile camera technology will drive all sorts of useful new innovations into the mainstream, like 360-degree video, 3D imaging and depth sensing. While some of those are abstract technologies today, they will power your favorite apps of tomorrow. In fact, you’re probably just starting to use them already. Snapchat’s filters, for instance, are powered with a combination of camera hardware and software. Likewise the “bokeh” portrait effect found on the iPhone 7 Plus and other rival devices. And let’s not forget the frenzy around Pokémon Go, which used players’ smartphone cameras as part of the gaming experience in a clever way. Armed with the latest smartphones, casual users are achieving complex visual tricks that once required dedicated hardware, specialized software, and the right training to accomplish. And there’s plenty more photographic innovation yet to come.
Given that modern smartphones have been around for nearly two decades, one would assume we might be done pushing the boundaries of what this device is capable of doing. But there’s still so far to go. Over the next few years, our smartphones will become even more capable, thanks in part to advancements in imaging and visual processing, but also thanks to computational advancements, cloud computing, network infrastructure and more.
These breakthroughs will remain a significant driver of so many future experiences, meaning the smartphone will keep disrupting all sorts of industries. We’ll also see tools once exclusive to professionals become commoditized, and available to everyone. We’re already seeing some professional photographers do photo shoots entirely on smartphones. I can imagine a future where even adding complex and visually rich graphics and special effects will be possible, making it easy for anyone to capture and create Hollywood-level films on their phones. With all the hype around innovations like virtual reality, artificial intelligence and so on (which, to be fair, will be added into the smartphone over time) I still have to remind myself and others that the smartphone is still the next big thing.
Tim Bajarin is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists, covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc and has been with the company since 1981 where he has served as a consultant providing analysis to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry.