Camera lens manufacturer Leica Camera and Time-of-Flight (ToF) semiconductor engineering company PMD Technologies announced their new partnership at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and revealed their first ToF reference design created for mobile applications. The reference design known as Holkin claims to be the smallest 3D camera with the highest resolution compared to other ToF solutions available on the market today.
Holkin relies on Leica's lens technology optimized for 940nm and leverages on PMD Technologies' new 3D imager known as IRS2771C. The module has a resolution of 480 by 320 pixels, it uses PMD's Suppression of Background Illumination technology, and with a height of 4.2mm, it's the smallest 3D camera solution available, according to the two companies.
The ToF module has been designed to be used either as a selfie camera or as a rear-facing sensor for mobile applications. It can facilitate features such as face unlock and provides augmented reality (AR) applications.
3D depth sensing cameras have been previously used for certain tablets including those powered by Google's Tango augmented reality platform, but an increasing number of smartphones unveiled over the past year or so have adopted ToF sensors allowing them to capture their 3D surroundings on the fly in real time, hence the name "Time-of-Flight."
One of these OEMs is Huawei, who is incidentally collaborating with Leica for the development of their smartphone camera modules. Its sub-brand Honor launched the V20 in December 2018 boasting its own Time-of-Flight 3D dual sensor along with a standard 48-megapixel unit. The Huawei P30 Pro which made a surprise appearance at MWC might also adopt ToF camera technology but this remains to be confirmed.
LG's latest flagship phone, the G8 ThinQ, features a ToF camera, and that ToF modules is provided by PMD. Unlike most other smartphones adopting this technology, LG's device embeds the ToF module in the front-facing display notch and is primarily meant for selfie and face recognition applications.
As yet, Leica and PMD Technologies have not revealed any potential partners interested in basing their ToF units on the brand new Holkin module, but given the ongoing collaboration between Huawei and Leica, the Chinese smartphone maker remains a prime contender. Nevertheless, as a reference design, the Holkin module could be employed by a wide variety of smartphone OEMs who might be interested in expanding upon advanced facial recognition and/or augmented reality features.
The Holkin sensor for mobile devices was achieved in its current compact form because the system was co-designed as opposed to being developed around individual components pieced together to create a new product, revealed PMD Technologies Executive Board Member, Jochen Penne.
Meanwhile, according to another press release issued just a couple of days ago, PMD Technologies will lend its ToF hardware and expertise to Chinese automotive startup BYTON, who will employ the company's 3D Time-of-Flight sensors for its first production vehicle called the M-Byte SUV, scheduled to enter production later this year. In this particular case, the company's 3D sensing technology will be used to power in-car gesture controls through a large 48-inch digital dashboard.