Your smartphone could be covered with camera 'eyeballs' in a few years

In a few years, randomly scattered digital eyeballs will cover the back of your smartphone. This actually isn’t speculation. It’s a near certainty.

This photo is a prototype L16 camera from the company Light. While the L16 has not yet been released, it’s already the most promising new photo gadget in years. The L16 uses a range of lenses with smartphone-sized sensors to computationally generate images that could have come from a DSLR. It also brings features to the table never before seen on a professional-quality camera, like after-the-fact focus and depth-of-field adjustments.

Whether the L16 itself can actually compete with the best DSLRs around remains to be seen, but it doesn’t matter. It’s essentially a proof-of-concept device. If it works, which it seems likely to based on example shots and conversations with the creators, the underlying tech can scale up or down. And the creators have partnered with smartphone manufacturing giant Foxconn to scale it down for smartphones.

Bradley Lautenbach, who heads marketing and product design for Light, says he doesn’t yet know exactly which of the many companies Foxconn builds phones for (the most notable is Apple) will get full-fledged computational photography first. But he says the manufacturer has the rights to the technology and intends to use it.

Multi-lens devices like the Huawei P9 and LG G5 already feature some baby steps toward multi-lens image making with their dual cameras. The G5’s is a bit disappointing, but the P9 uses a combined monochrome and colour sensor to enhace sharpness and low-light quality, apparently to great success.

Cameras as they are have probably come close to the upper limit of quality that they can achieve with a single, small lens and sensor. Offering users the chance to shoot images closer to DSLRs’ would give a brand a major leg up over the competition.

Whatever smartphone becomes the first to feature L16-style computational photography will likely not be quite as impressive. The L16 has 16 lenses, which are more than the technology needs to work on a simpler level, according to CTO Rajiv Laroia. And there will be reasons to do away with some its most impressive features; the 70mm and 150mm lenses it uses for long-range shooting lie sideways in the device, collecting light from mirrors angled at 45 degrees. That’s part of the reason the L16, while about as long and wide as an iPhone 6s Plus, is several times as thick.

But on a technological level, from the moment the L16 is released a smartphone version won’t be a very distant dream. Lautenbach points out that the gadget, which has a 5-inch screen, a Snapdragon processor, and an Android operating system, is just an LTE radio shy of being a smartphone itself.

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