iPhone 12 killer feature just revealed — and the Galaxy S20 should be nervous

(Image credit: Pallav Raj)

The iPhone 12 has been rumored to be getting a time-of-flight (ToF) camera for some time. And that's the only notable exclusion from the otherwise excellent camera system on the iPhone 11 Pro: a depth sensor that could eclipse what Samsung offers on the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Sources speaking to Fast Company explain that the rumors of a "world-facing" 3D camera appearing on the iPhone 12 are indeed true. But what will you be able to do with it?

The sensor, made up of a laser and a sensor combined with some software, will allow the iPhone 12 to measure distance from itself to objects in front of it more accurately, with AR experiences and photo/video effects seeing a big benefit.

Apple will reportedly buy the laser for the new 3D camera from San Jose-based Lumentum. This is the same company that currently supplies the laser for the iPhone’s front-facing 3D TrueDepth camera.

According to Fast Company, the world-facing 3D camera will have multiple benefits. One is better-looking portraits. "The addition of the depth camera data may create a better-looking bokeh effect by more accurately distinguishing between foreground and background layers."

iPhone 12 users would then have more control over depth layers in editing mode, similar to what Samsung offers today on its phones. 

Where Apple would pull ahead is with AR applications. Apple is reportedly developing an AR app for iOS 14 that will let users point their iPhone at items in Apple Stores and Starbucks, and see digital information display around the items on the phone screen, This is according to 9to5 Mac.

Fast Company also reports that the 3D camera could be used for creating media for social sharing. "For instance, people might like to share images of themselves interacting with holographic images of animals or celebrities in their own living rooms."

It's kind of odd that we've had to wait this long for Apple to add a sensor like this onto the iPhone, because there's already one on the front of the phone as part of the Face ID system.

The source does warn that while this has been a feature Apple has been considering adding to an iPhone for some time, and that this version has been in progress for two years, it may not make the cut once again. Let's hope that doesn't happen.

Many rival phones already use ToF sensors. The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus and the more recent Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra both have one, as do the Huawei P30 Pro and Mate 30 Pro, so it's about time that Apple caught up.

Of course coronavirus might frustrate Apple's plans, and some reports claim the virus already has delayed the iPhone 12 and iPhone 9. Hopefully this will only translate to a delay in shipping the devices, and not to them losing key features such as this one.

Richard Priday
Assistant Phones Editor

Richard is based in London, covering news, reviews and how-tos for phones, tablets, gaming, and whatever else people need advice on. Following on from his MA in Magazine Journalism at the University of Sheffield, he's also written for WIRED U.K., The Register and Creative Bloq. When not at work, he's likely thinking about how to brew the perfect cup of specialty coffee.