Ever since the very first iPhone was introduced in 2007, there's been a gradual push for larger and larger screens, with less and less device surrounding them. The latest "all-screen" models have pushed those boundaries about as far as possible, eliminating the "chin" that housed home buttons or fingerprint sensors but haven't been able to lose the equally distracting notch up top for front-facing "selfie" cameras.
In fact, eliminating that cutout has long been considered the holy grail of smartphone design.
Now, it's about to become a real thing.
Yesterday, Oppo, a smartphone technology company based in China, introduced an under-screen camera that would allow a full-screen display without a notch at the top. The camera uses larger pixels and a wider aperture to capture as much light possible and uses computer algorithms to reduce haze and increase sharpening.
The camera requires a screen with a specially-designed transparent material in order to let light through, although first-hand accounts suggest that the experience isn't quite yet ready for prime time. Reviewers report that the overall image quality is less than what we're currently used to from front-facing cameras, lacking the clarity and color reproduction found in existing smartphones.
The Samsung Galaxy S10, for example, has a 10MP front-facing camera with an f/1.9 aperture. Oppo doesn't give specifics about its camera, but in order to capture enough light through the display screen, tsays it uses larger pixels, which inherently capture more light, but introduce more grain and result in lower resolution in the same size sensor.
Still, the announcement is significant for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Oppo is certainly not the only company trying to perfect an under-the-screen camera design. For that matter, cameras aren't the only thing mobile device designers would like to embed below the screen. Rumors have circulated for a while that Apple is trying to build a TouchID sensor into the next iPhone display.
Moving components under the screen is the logical evolution of smartphone design, and a camera that is able to still take quality photos while being virtually invisible on the face of the device is easily the most coveted design challenge. While Oppo's technology isn't currently available, the company does say that it will soon be included on a mainstream smartphone.
Here's what's most interesting about this.
Front-facing cameras have come a long way, with devices like the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy sporting cameras with resolutions over 7 megapixels. Apple's TrueDepth camera is also what allows FaceID and the fancy "portrait mode" to work, meaning that device makers have packed a lot of technology into what used to be basically reserved for low-quality selfies.
I don't know the data, but I suspect it's possible that we're nearing parity in terms of the amount of time users spend shooting with the rear vs front-facing cameras. That means that most manufacturers are have made it a priority to maintain high-quality images from the front-facing lenses.
Embedding a camera below the surface of the display presents significant challenges to that quality in terms of light, haze, and color temperature, but Oppo has announced a camera that likely sacrifices some of that quality to achieve an even greater design goal.
I think that's brilliant.
It's almost cliche to say that it's better to be first than to be best, but it's also often true. Oppo is making a statement that basically proves the concept and is now inviting the industry to make it happen. Certainly, Oppo would like to sell lots of components or license its technology to someone else, but I applaud anyone willing to put something out there, even if it requires a sacrifice in one area, in order to take a bold leap in another direction.
We're often tempted to wait for the thing we're building to be perfect. You can probably relate to the fear that if it's not "ready," it'll end up rejected, but as Voltaire says, "le mieux est l'ennemi du bien."
Too often "the best is the enemy of good."
Or, for you entrepreneurs, don't let your good idea die because you waited until it was perfect. Even if it's not ready for primetime, you'll make it better. And in the meantime, you'll be known as the one who did something new.
You might even get to find the holy grail.