Ever since phone manufacturers decided it was their duty to eliminate bezels, the front-facing camera has been caught in no man’s land. Nobody really liked the notch that Apple introduced with the iPhone X, but it’s not like other solutions have proved much better. Hole-punch cameras still leave an off putting hole in the screen, and pop-out cameras add weight to a handset as well tending to attract dust.
Xiaomi has been working on a solution to the problem for some time, and it has apparently found success on the third attempt. The video below shows the third generation under-display camera, which puts the lens fully out of sight.
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To be clear, you didn’t blink and miss the first and second generations – they were never available in a commercial product, and it sounds like Xiaomi was sensible to hold off. The graphic below, from Xiaomi’s blog post introducing the technology, suggests that early prototypes worked by reducing the pixel density over the camera, which doesn’t feel ideal. By contrast, the current working design achieves the same effect via a different pixel arrangement.
“The self-developed pixel arrangement used in Xiaomi’s 3rd Generation Under-Display Camera Technology allows the screen to pass light through the gap area of sub-pixels, allowing each single pixel to retain a complete RGB subpixel layout without sacrificing pixel density,” the company writes.
“Compared with other common solutions on the market, Xiaomi has doubled the number of horizontal and vertical pixels, achieving the same pixel density above the camera as on the rest of the display area. Thus, the area above the integrated camera demonstrates the same brightness, color gamut and color accuracy as the rest of the display.”
It certainly looks impressive on the promo video, and it’s genuinely hard to see the camera hidden away in most of the shots. The frame at the end of the video with the selfie is a little more obvious, with a slightly darker square revealing the camera’s location, but even then, it’s still far less obtrusive than our current solutions. And with this fall's iPhone 12 expected to retain some sort of notch, next year's wave of flagships could finally solve a still-persistent smartphone problem.
Of course what we won’t know until we actually get our hands on the new technology is whether image quality is up to scratch. Xiaomi insists that the tech offers “the same performance as conventional front cameras”, but we’ll have to wait and see. It may be a case of picking whether you want more beautiful selfies, or a more beautiful phone.
The company says it “aims to bring this technology mass market next year”, so hopefully we won’t be waiting long before we can see it in person. We’ve been wowed by Xiaomi promo videos before — the company’s folding handset prototype looked head and shoulders above the opposition when shared last January, but 19 months later and it’s still yet to be seen. Hopefully this new technology doesn’t see the same kind of delays.
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Freelance contributor Alan has been writing about tech for over a decade, covering phones, drones and everything in between. Previously Deputy Editor of tech site Alphr, his words are found all over the web and in the occasional magazine too. When not weighing up the pros and cons of the latest smartwatch, you'll probably find him tackling his ever-growing games backlog. Or, more likely, playing Spelunky for the millionth time.