On November 3rd, Apple will start shipping its phone of the future. The “revolutionary” iPhone X enables everybody (or at least those who are willing to pay big bucks) to use a piece of future technology ahead of time. But how much of this “revolution” is just marketing speak? Here’s what Sam, our Head of Innovation, thinks of the new iPhone’s sensor array. The iPhone X is an impressive feat of engineering. The screen is unlike that of any other high-end phone. The sensor array on top of the screen adds computer vision abilities that are far beyond that of other handsets. But is it really “revolutionary”?
Any technology that is going to have a significant impact over the next ten years is already at least ten years old. I didn’t come up with that — Butler Lampson did. But if you ask me, it does apply to the new iPhone X.
The long nose of innovation
In an influential piece on Bloomberg, back in 2008, Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton described the “Long Nose of Innovation.” According to this theory, most innovation is low-amplitude and takes place over a long period of time. Companies get ahead by refining existing technologies as much as by creating new ones.
The following quote from Buxton could’ve been a reference to Apple’s new sensor array:
“Innovation is not about alchemy. In fact, innovation is not about invention. An idea may well start with an invention, but the bulk of the work and creativity is in that idea’s augmentation and refinement.” — Bill Buxton (2008)
Do you think that sounds farfetched? I’m sure it’s not far from the truth. While I am excited about the iPhone X’s sensor array, I think it’s not as magical as Apple wants us to believe. Let’s take a moment to see how these sensors evolved into what they are today.
2009: Microsoft releases the Kinect
Do you remember the Microsoft Kinect? It was one of the most fascinating devices that came out in 2009. Paired with the Xbox 360, it promised the future of immersive gaming.
The infrared emitter, color sensor, infrared depth sensor, microphone array and the tilt motor allowed it to sense the depth of its environment. This offered potential for more engaging games and new interaction opportunities.
The Kinect was one of the fastest selling consumer electronics devices of all time, selling 8 million pieces in its first 60 days on the market. Yet, its biggest success happened outside the gaming industry.
The real success of the Kinect was enabling computer vision in an off-the-shelf product. The device caused a boom in environmentally aware projects in industries like 3D-scanning and DIY robotics. Amateurs in the DIY hacking scene embraced the Kinect.
An important note is that Microsoft didn’t develop the Kinect on its own. The first Kinect came into being in cooperation with an Israeli company called PrimeSense. It was only for the second edition of the Kinect that Microsoft switched to in-house development.
2017: Apple announces the iPhone X
Back to September 12th: Apple announced what they called “the future of mobile phones”. The two signature features of the new iPhone X are the shape of the screen and the sensor array at the top of the screen.
The screen nearly covers the entire front of the phone. While other manufacturers have already released models with curved screens, I haven’t seen many phones that have moved beyond the rectangular shape. Apple did: it put in a sensor array that "breaks" the screen.
The array contains an infrared camera, a flood illuminator, a proximity sensor, an ambient light sensor, a speaker, a microphone, a 7MP camera and a dot projector.
While some of these sensors were already present in previous iPhones, the sensor array of the iPhone X is nearly identical to the sensors used in the recently discontinued Microsoft Kinect.
Evolutionary, not revolutionary
While it’s an impressive achievement to pack all these sensors in such a small space, the iPhone’s notch is nothing but a clever application of technology from the past.
In retrospect, the similarity between the Kinect and the array of sensors in the iPhone X makes sense. In 2013, Apple bought PrimeSense, the company that worked with Microsoft on the initial Kinect.
The Kinect caused a revolution in computer vision. The sensors inside the iPhone X are more like an evolution. The real revolution will be the way the developers make use of their newly gained superpowers.
All of Apple’s 2017 iPhone models put a strong emphasis on augmented reality (AR). The addition of computer vision capabilities like face tracking to Apple’s ARKit API enables new and interesting applications of AR. This is a great application of Buxton’s theory:
“To my mind, at least, those who can shorten [the Long Nose of Innovation] by 10% to 20% make at least as great a contribution as those who had the initial idea. And if nothing else, long noses are great for sniffing out those great ideas sitting there neglected, just waiting to be exploited.” — Bill Buxton, Bloomberg (2008)
Apple’s Animoji give us a glimpse of what to expect. Now, developers have access to a fully animated 3D mesh of the face, along with real time readings of face lighting conditions through an API. It’s only a matter of time before we’ll start to see the real revolution: new and exciting forms of AR.
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