Your next smartphone might have a camera that you can’t even see. Here’s how under-display smartphone cameras work and why device manufacturers are trying to implement this new technology.
Nowadays, the front-facing camera is an integral part of any good smartphone. You can use it to take selfies, hop on video calls with friends, and unlock your phone through facial recognition.
However, as phones have started moving towards thinner bezels and bigger displays, companies have experimented with ways to minimize the camera’s presence. One of the newest techniques is placing the camera underneath the display. It’s similar to in-display fingerprint scanning, which is now a common way of unlocking your phone.
At the time of this writing, we’ve seen a recent influx of new smartphones with under-display front-facing cameras. The most high-profile of these devices is the Galaxy Z Fold 3—Samsung’s latest entry in its cutting-edge line of foldable phones. It comes with a 4MP sensor hidden underneath its large, folding display. Other companies like Xiaomi, ZTE, and Vivo have added under-display cameras to their devices as well.
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How Do Cameras See You?
The main thing you might be wondering is how the cameras go about producing an image, considering that they’re behind part of the screen. How it works is that the part of the display on top of the camera is transparent. These devices essentially have a display-in-a-display. The primary screen is usually made up of OLED or LED technology, while the small cut-out uses a different kind of glass that allows for the camera underneath it to capture light.
Even when the camera is turned off, these “holes” can still be quite visible during regular use. It’s typically described as a “blurrier patch” on the screen and can stick out when watching content in full-screen mode or gaming. However, companies are taking steps to make them less obvious to the eye. Usually, the brighter the screen is set, the less noticeable the hole becomes.
Also, the display layers over the cameras make it quite challenging to capture a clear image. Owners of these phones often find photos they take with under-display cameras to be blurry, hazy, or poor quality. While companies are trying to improve the capture quality through image processing, they’re still a long way from getting to a similar quality as the selfie cameras we have on our phones now.
At this point, you might ask, “What exactly is the point of this technology?” For the last decade, smartphone manufacturers have been shrinking the bezel, the empty area around the actual screen. Phones from the early 2010s often had huge bezels dominated by buttons, front-facing cameras, and front-firing speakers. However, to adhere to modern design sensibilities, these have increasingly been phased out in favor of thin bezels and larger screen sizes.
Many companies have been trying to find unique ways to minimize their bezels. Apple’s iPhone was one of the first to adopt a notch, which left only a cut-out at the top of the display to accommodate the front-facing camera and FaceID sensor. Samsung’s Galaxy phones use a “hole-punch,” which adds a small hole solely for the selfie camera. Oppo and OnePlus opted to have pop-up cameras that use an electronic motor to push up the camera when it needs to be used.
The recent push to hide the camera under the screen is the most recent bezel-minimizing method manufacturers have adopted. Right now, its adoption is limited to fairly expensive, niche devices. Only time will tell if these under-display cameras catch on with the public.
The Future of Under-Display Tech
While impressive, this technology is far from perfect. While the image output might be considered decent, many reviewers have noted that Samsung tends to perform very heavy image processing on the pictures to make them usable. The images taken from under-display cameras pale compared to those taken with a standard selfie camera on any flagship smartphone.
It might be a sign that the industry isn’t quite ready in this direction quite yet. While the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the highest-profile smartphone to adopt this new tech, it didn’t fully commit to having the under-display camera as its sole front-facing shooter. It has a second higher-quality selfie camera on its front display that takes significantly better pictures.
However, it might just be a few years until companies perfect this technology and make under-display cameras completely seamless. Only time will tell.
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