Austria-based ams has announced a new time-of-flight (ToF) sensor that's not only accurate but also the smallest 1D ToF module in the world. Measuring in at just 2.2 x 3.6 x 1mm and designated with model number TMF8701, the new sensor features high resistance to smudges, dirt, and other interference such as those from ambient light while maintaining a tightly-controlled field of view. That makes it ideal for implementation in a smartphone with greatly reduced bezels, allowing for higher screen-to-body ratios. In terms of hardware, and in spite of its size, the module in question is comprised of an integrated VCSEL infrared emitter, multiple SPAD light detectors, a time-to-digital converter, and a histogram processing cores. Those components are used in combination to run the algorithms associated with the sensor's capabilities on the chip itself. The result is a 1D ToF sensor that only draws 940 microamps in proximity mode at 10Hz, while also being accurate enough for laser-detection autofocus in low-light circumstances without losing too much accuracy. That's maintained even under the glare of direct sunlight under smudgy glass.
ToF sensors serve a number of purposes from their use in vehicles for collision avoidance systems to the above-mentioned camera features. Additionally, they've become increasingly popular in smartphone security in facial recognition features in both processing time and accuracy. Companies embracing the technology have touted the sensors as a requirement for driving innovation in smartphones forward. Sony, one of the leading smartphone camera manufacturers in the world, has gone so far as to compare ToF sensors to the camera itself in terms of just how revolutionary the sensors could be. The company has also noted a substantial growth in demand, with cameras built on the technology appearing in flagships from top brands including Samsung and Huawei. That's been driven by a need to meet consumers' desire for better and faster security methods other than fingerprint scanners as well as new gesture and camera software ranging from better background blurring to new AR features.
The technology has faced challenges though, with smartphones themselves getting smaller while also being driven to include larger screens with slimmer bezels. That concept has presented at least one major issue for manufacturers due to the added components needed to meet the above-mentioned goal. The amount of space inside a modern handset is already extremely limited and scaling back on the battery capacity of a smartphone is not a viable option due to increasingly demanding internal components. By trimming back the room taken up by the ToF sensor itself, ams is addressing that from its end. That should free up OEMs to continue those trends and looking for ways to improve matters in terms of design for the time being.
Not shipping in Smartphones anytime soon
The introduction of the new ams TMF8701 time-of-flight module is good news for consumers and manufacturer's alike but it won't be arriving anytime soon. Evaluation kits have been made available for OEMs as of this writing, in addition to the company's announcement that the product has entered mass production already. The component also seems relatively inexpensive at just $2.60 for orders containing 5,000 units. It is still going to take some time, however, for smartphone makers to examine TMF8701 and work it into their designs. That's before work even starts on testing and producing the devices, setting aside certifications and other parts of the process. So the latest offering from ams may not begin appearing in user's hands inside a smartphone for some time.