Industry watchers expect the shipments of Android smartphones equipped with 3D sensing technology will increase over the course of this year. Device makers already launched several handsets that sported 3D sensors since late 2017 and more followed suit last year, including the OPPO Find X, Xiaomi Mi 8 Explorer, Honor Magic 2 3D, and the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, though only Huawei and OPPO shipped more than a million units of such handsets.
These devices use expensive 3D sensors based on structured light technology. According to a report released last year, one 3D camera module may cost around $50 a piece, which prevents companies from including the hardware into cheaper devices. While several Chinese companies already produce some of the parts needed for 3D-sensing technology, the cost of imaging modules remains high since handset manufacturers must import several key components from international suppliers.
Moreover, device makers will have to spend additional resources to develop drivers and test the compatibility of those imaging modules, which further increases production costs. Those expenses are the main reason why the sensors in question remain a rarity.
However, that trend should change with the introduction of time-of-flight sensors. Unlike structured light modules, which detect how the surface of an object distorts a pattern of light, the time-of-flight sensors measure the amount of time needed for light emitted by the smartphone to return to the sensor. Manufacturers claim that time-of-flight technology is more accurate at measuring distances of objects compared to structured light sensors. They are also cheaper to implement, which should allow companies to include the feature into mid-range devices. One sensor maker recently announced a new time-of-flight module that only costs $2.60 per component, which is cheaper than the $50 per module that manufacturers currently spend. Digitimes Research expects that the number of Android smartphones sporting 3D sensing technologies to reach 20 million units this year, with manufacturers like Huawei, Xiaomi, Vivo, and OPPO launching handsets with time-of-flight sensors within the year.
Sony, a major manufacturer of imaging modules, agrees with this assessment, and the head of the company's sensor division, Satoshi Yoshihara, expects that handset makers will implement ToF sensors at an increasing rate moving forward. Sony expects that the revolutionary features enabled by 3D sensors, which include support for augmented reality games and applications, may draw consumers' attention back to smartphones. The Japanese smartphone giant also noted that it is experiencing growth of demand from companies like Samsung and Huawei, and this demand may further rise as manufacturers include 3D sensors into mid-range smartphones. In fact, rumors claim that Samsung will incorporate ToF modules not only into its premium handset offerings like the 5G-capable variant of the Galaxy S10 but also with its mid-range devices like the Galaxy A lineup. However, in incorporating 3D sensors, manufacturers may have to modify their smartphone designs to accommodate the new hardware.
Large-scale inclusion of 3D sensors into Android smartphones enables a wide range of features, although one of the most important functionalities that it empowers is the more accurate face unlock technology, which improves user security and privacy. With the reduced cost of 3D imaging modules, consumers can expect this hardware feature to appear in more smartphones across a variety of price pints, although the cost related to software development may still limit the functionalities that these sensors can support in cheaper devices.