Future Apple Watch strap may feature panorama or 3D cameras

Apple is researching ways to eliminate lens distortion using multiple cameras in the flexible housing of a device such as an Apple Watch strap.

You can’t bend a lens without wrecking its optical properties. But you can have a series of camera lenses across a flexible surface, and by bending that housing, get a combined panoramic, or 3D, image.

“Camera Systems for Bendable Electronic Devices,” is a newly-revealed patent application, which is concerned with taking images with such a series of cameras, and then compiling them into one.

“To capture wide angle photographs, some cellular telephones support panoramic image capture modes,” says the patent application. “It can be challenging to capture panoramic images in this way.”

“Images may become blurred due to camera movement and/or portions of a scene may move during image capture operations,” it continues. “Alignment issues may also arise causing desired portions of an image to be cut off unintentionally.”

Rather than taking a series of images over time — as the user slowly sweeps their iPhone around — Apple’s proposed solution is to take all the shots at once, using a series of lenses.

“By reorienting the cameras by bending the housing, the cameras can be used to capture panoramic images or three-dimensional images,” says Apple.

It’s the housing that is key, the material within which cameras can usefully be held and adjusted.

“An electronic device may have a flexible housing formed from flexible fabric, flexible polymer, or other flexible materials,” continues Apple. “Cameras may be mounted on the housing. The housing may be bent into different configurations… The cameras may have respective camera image capture directions.”

The majority of the patent application is concerned with describing how cameras could be mounted atop such a flexible surface, or embedded within. There’s also a third option where, “one or more portions of the housing walls may be transparent,” and so let light through to a lens.

Detail from the patent showing a housing in a straight and bent state

Detail from the patent showing a housing in a straight and bent state

Alongside the specific use of camera lenses, the patent does also stop to say that various sensors could be used in such a flexible housing. “Sensors for [the] device may include force sensors… audio sensors such as microphones, touch and/or proximity sensors such as capacitive sensors…,” it says.

“If desired, a display may have a force sensor for gathering force input,” continues the patent application. So you could have, say, an Apple Watch strap with cameras around it. And you could trigger those cameras by pressing on the strap.

Then the rest of application is concerned with addressing that issue of how current panoramic photos have alignment or blurring problems.

“During image capture operations, the control circuitry… can use each of [the] cameras to simultaneously (or nearly simultaneously) capture these images and can stitch the captured images together in real time to form a static or moving panoramic image,” says Apple.

“When images are captured simultaneously in this way, artifacts due to object motion may be reduced or eliminated,” it continues. “This allows a user to orient [the] device satisfactorily… to otherwise capture desired images.”

This patent application is credited to Katherine E. Tong. Her previous work includes granted patents such as using an Apple Pencil to trace physical 3D objects for generating virtual Apple AR objects.

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