iPhone 12 killer upgrade could steal one of Google Pixel's best features

iPhone 12 render by PhoneArena
(Image credit: Phone Arena)

The iPhone 12 could see a big upgrade in the form of air gesture controls, much like those we have seen on the Google Pixel 4.

This potential upgrade was spotted by Patently Apple (via Forbes), who discovered a patent concerning a next-gen depth sensor that Apple could squeeze into its flagship phones.

We can be pretty certain that the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max will be getting LiDAR depth sensors in their rear camera arrays to help with photography effects, and this patent offers something similar for the front camera array.

(Image credit: USPTO)

As the patent, titled "Calibration of depth sensing using a sparse array of pulsed beams" notes, phone users are increasingly needing 3D imaging sensors for use with popular applications. Therefore the document details a system that projects and reads a grid of dots, much like how the IR part of Face ID works.

Using a time-of-flight camera inside its display notch, the iPhone could help give selfies a high-quality bokeh effect, create 3D maps of objects, or help make Face ID more secure, which previous patents have hinted at. However, what's particularly interesting is the idea of using in-air gestures.

Phones like the Pixel 4 and the Huawei Mate 30 Pro offer air gestures, made by waving your hand in a specific way in front of their respective radar and IR sensors. Neither were particularly effective, with the gestures only applying to a few functions, and not always reliable enough for normal use.

Apple has made similar patents to this before. For example, this one detailing its own concept for how gesture recognition would work, and another looking at adding this gesture support to iPhones, iPads and Macs.

If and when this technology appears on an iPhone, Apple won't be able to claim a world first with it. But with its tendency to take things slow and make its new features (mostly) work right the first time around, an iPhone with air gestures would in theory work effectively, and be a big deal for its competitors.

The iPhone 12, expected around September or October, is tipped to bring many changes to the iPhone formula, such as 5G, new display sizes and the aforementioned LiDAR sensor on the two iPhone 12 Pro models. However, air gestures isn't something that's been rumored up to now. Assuming the leakers and tipsters around the web haven't missed any big clues to its presence, Perhaps air gestures will be a feature we see on the iPhone 13 in 2021 instead.

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.