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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Under-display selfie cameras are here, but do we really want them?

Under-display cameras still have an uphill climb ahead of them before challenges with design and image quality are resolved.

By: Tech Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: August 4, 2021 4:05:57 pm
Oppo, under display camera.Oppo, Xiaomi and ZTE are some of the brands working on perfecting the under-display camera design. (Image Source: Oppo)

Oppo just announced its newest iteration of the under-display camera, a technology that many brands are working on right now to get it right, before we see it commercially available on mainstream smartphones. Other brands are in on it too; Xiaomi has been working on developing the under-display camera tech for a while, and ZTE’s Axon series has been implementing the same since last year.

Why under-display cameras?

Over the last decade, smartphones have gone from traditional large bezel designs to their modern form factor, with very slim bezels and a focus on larger, more immersive screens. The hunt for a completely immersive, all-screen front on a smartphone has now brought us to under-display cameras.

These include placing the front camera sensor under a portion of the screen, usually closer to the top edge, with technological advancements allowing the screen to go from displaying colours when in use, to going transparent when the camera is needed. This is usually done by locally reducing the number of pixels in the screen in that area, to allow the passage of light for the photos.

The journey of the vanishing camera

As operating systems, apps and games became more optimised to completely switch to touch screens, the navigation buttons on the bottom of the screen were the first to get the axe. This was followed by microphones, sensors, and on phones like the HTC One M series, even the speakers.

All these aspects could be moved to either the top and bottom edges of the phone, or on the sides. However, the front camera remains the only part that needs to be facing the user to function, making its movement around the phone a difficult task.

Manufacturers have come with a number of work-around to this over the last few years. These include the wide notch design that Apple’s iPhone lineup continues till date, the waterdrop notch, the pop-up camera mechanism which became popular and mysteriously disappeared within a couple of years. Finally, we have the pill-shaped and hole-punch cutouts that are quite popular today.

While the hole-punch displays have taken up lesser space in recent devices, and have also switched up the position of the camera across the top of the screen, perhaps the only way to minimise the screen real estate taken up by the cameras is to put them under the screen.

We have seen fingerprint sensors do the same dance, originating as a dedicated panel on either the front or back of most phones, to moving to the side by combining themselves with the power button before they were able to operate from under the screens on AMOLED screens. The tech is likely to be available for LCD panels in the near future as well.

Challenges for under display cameras that still need to be resolved

Under display cameras are not flawless yet. The sensors do have issues seamlessly merging with the rest of the screen, often displaying a silhouette that takes away from the experience. This is most visible especially on white screens. The picture quality of under display cameras is also yet to compete with traditional front cameras.

This is often the result of manufacturers reducing the number of pixels in that area of the screen, to allow light to pass through for the camera sensor. Oppo’s new camera, however, aims to bypass this by using the smaller pixels but maintaining the same pixel density uniformly across the screen. The company, which showed off its first under-display camera prototype back at MWC Shanghai in 2019, does seem to have improved the quality of images, as suggested by the one camera sample the brand shared. However, how the camera performs in varying scenarios including low light remains to be seen.

Which phones have under-display cameras right now?

The technology is currently available only on ZTE’s phones, including the Axon 20 5G and the newer Axon 30. Vivo also put in an under-display camera on its Apex 2020 concept phone, but since it is a concept device, you can’t really get your hands on it.

Xiaomi and Oppo have so far demoed the technology but are yet to make it commercially available on a device. Meanwhile there are also rumours Samsung will implement an under-display sensor on its Galaxy Z Fold 3, but that’s nothing more than just speculation at this point. As of now, no phone available directly in India has the technology.

Under-display cameras still have an uphill climb ahead of them before challenges with design and image quality are resolved. Only then will it be able to be present on more devices, perhaps eventually becoming a mainstream feature available on mid-range phones. However, that point could still be years away.

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