Report: Samsung Galaxy A to Feature 3D Sensors Next Year

A new report from South Korean publication ETNews claims that the South Korean tech giant Samsung will likely incorporate 3D sensors into its mid-range Galaxy A handsets. While it did not provide any information about the specific mid-range devices that will ship with 3D imaging modules, users should expect the mid-range devices equipped with 3D sensors to appear starting next year. Previous reports already mentioned that the 5G-capable model of the company's upcoming flagship offering, the Samsung Galaxy S10, will also feature 3D imaging technologies. However, instead of the structured light technology utilized in other smartphones, the handset will feature a time-of-flight (ToF) sensor, a module that measures the distance of a specific object by recording the amount of time needed for the light from the smartphone to return to the sensor. The report from ETNews notes that the ToF technology is considerably more accurate in measuring the distances of objects compared to the structured light technology that Apple is currently using with its handsets.

The same report also claims that Qualcomm is working with the Austria-based sensor manufacturer AMS to incorporate support for structured light 3D-imaging systems to the Snapdragon 855 SoC. The report states that the two companies aim to develop a hardware solution that combines the algorithms required by AMS' 3D sensor technologies, which include laser arrays, projection optics, and diffractive optics, with Qualcomm's upcoming flagship chipset offering. This hardware solution by Qualcomm and AMS should permit its customers, mainly handset manufacturers, to easily include 3D sensors into their respective smartphone offerings without the additional work required by driver development and compatibility testing of third-party imaging modules.

Background: The number of smartphones that feature 3D sensors is expected to surpass more than 100 million units in 2018, according to the Chinese analytics firm SigmaIntell. However, in the Android ecosystem, 3D sensing has yet to become a mainstream functionality, with Android devices only accounting for 12-percent of the 100 million smartphones that feature 3D imaging. However, a number of smartphone manufacturers are already working to commercialize this hardware feature. For example, Xiaomi recently incorporated 3D sensors into the Xiaomi Mi 8.

One of the features made possible by the inclusion of 3D sensors is faster and more accurate face unlock functionality. The 3D sensors will first map that face of the user and once the face has been registered, the device can then recognize the person in a wide variety of lighting conditions and even if they are wearing glasses or hats. Furthermore, 3D sensors can also be used for augmented reality purposes, which may include virtually arranging pieces of furniture before they are purchased from stores. However, key barriers to incorporating this technology to Android smartphones are the cost of the 3D modules, which could cost as much as $50 a piece, and the constraints related to handset aesthetics.

Impact: While there is little information about the uses of 3D sensors on mid-range devices, Samsung will likely incorporate software features that will take full advantage of 3D sensors. These use cases may include more secure face unlock, which allows Samsung's mid-range handsets to better compete with the products offered by other device makers. Furthermore, the latest effort by Qualcomm and 3D sensor maker AMS should help make 3D sensing a mainstream feature among Android devices. Even if the cost of 3D sensors may remain high, the amount of money spent on software development and testing related to this feature will be significantly reduced in the presence of off-the-shelf hardware solutions. This solution could allow other smartphone manufacturers that already offer 3D imaging features to incorporate the same technology in cheaper devices, similar to what Samsung is reportedly planning to do with its mid-range handset offerings.

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