Intel RealSense 3D depth camera fitted into smartphone

RealSense Image copyright Intel
Image caption Intel, led by Brian Krzanich, says its RealSense technology is now small enough to fit in a smartphone

Intel has revealed a version of its 3D depth camera that is small and thin enough to be fitted into a 6in (15.2cm) smartphone.

The RealSense sensor can be used to recognise hand and head movements and makes it possible to change the focus of photos after they have been taken.

The prototype was unveiled by the company chief executive Brian Krzanich at an event in Shenzhen, China.

One expert noted that questions remained about its power demands.

Although Mr Krzanich showed off an example of a RealSense-enabled phone, he did not demonstrate it working, which may indicate it is still at an early stage of development.

"The device which was shown on stage at the Intel Developer Forum was a prototype that was created in collaboration with a Chinese firm, whom we are not naming," said a spokeswoman for the company.

"The device is meant to show the different types of apps, usage models and form factors that RealSense tech can be integrated into and to encourage innovation."

Image copyright Intel
Image caption The depth data collected by RealSense cameras can be used to change the focus of a photo after it has been taken

The technology is similar to that found in Microsoft's Kinect motion-and-image sensor, but in a much smaller package.

While the Kinect has fallen out of favour with many Xbox gamers, one industry watcher thought the technology would prove popular in handsets.

"We've got to the stage where putting ever higher-resolution cameras in phones is no longer as much of a selling point as it used to be," said Chris Green, of the Davies Murphy Group consultancy.

"So manufacturers need additional features to draw on. Depth perception and light-field technology will interest people and potentially let the next generation of smartphones differentiate themselves from what is already on the market.

"Intel has obviously achieved half of the challenge involved - the miniaturisation - but what is still unclear is whether it has got the power side of things licked. It's one thing putting this into a laptop where you have a large battery and access to a mains power source, it's another to put it into a phone that has to last throughout the day."

Sensor rivals

Intel first announced that laptops were to incorporate its RealSense components in January last year, after a tie-up with the Belgian 3D vision specialist SoftKinetic.

Image copyright Intel
Image caption Intel's RealSense cameras already allow laptops to be controlled with gestures

It suggested the tech could be used to provide improved gesture recognition - allowing users to control devices without having to touch them - as well as a way to scan objects that could be later edited and 3D-printed and a means to have more control over the way photos and videos looked after they had been captured.

This year, Dell became the first manufacturer to incorporate the technology into a tablet.

Getting the tech into a smartphone would offer Intel a potential coup, but other firms are also working on alternatives.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Google's Project Tango tablet can be used to create 3D models of rooms

Google has created Project Tango - a tablet fitted with a 3D image sensor made by the German company PMDTechnologies.

At this point the kit is limited to developers, as part of an effort to add "spatial perception" to the Android ecosystem.

The US-based Pelican Imaging is also working on a depth-sensing array of cameras designed for smartphones that it says would let photos be refocused after being taken as well as allowing users to create "3D selfies".

Image copyright Pelican
Image caption Pelican Imaging suggests its sensors will make 3D selfies possible

Its work is backed by Intel's chip-making rival Qualcomm as well as Nokia's venture capital wing, Nokia Growth Partners.

In addition, Apple bought PrimeSense in November 2013.

The Israeli start-up had previously provided the technology used in the original Kinect. Apple has yet to announce how it plans to make use of the acquisition.

Still too big?

One tech journalist who attended the event in Shenzhen suggested Intel might still have quite a bit of work before its RealSense tech was ready for mainstream handsets.

Image copyright Intel
Image caption One expert suggested Intel needed to shrink the components to fit smaller handsets

"It was weird because Brian Krzanich said on stage that he's known for taking risks with performing live demos at tech events, and yet this was pretty much the only device he did not turn on to show what it did on stage, which might say something about the early stage it is at," Richard Lai, editor-in-chief of Engadget Chinese, told the BBC.

"And the prototype was still a 6in phablet. That size is socially acceptable in China, where consumers like to have a large screen.

"But putting it into a smaller form factor would make it more accessible to other consumers."

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