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Sony boosts 3D camera output for smartphones


A prototype of Sony Corp’s 3D camera module is displayed at the company’s Atsugi Technology Center in Atsugi, Japan, on Tuesday last week.

Photo: Bloomberg

Sony Corp, the biggest maker of camera chips used in smartphones, is boosting production of next-generation 3D sensors after customers, including Apple Inc, have shown interest.

The chips are to power front and rear-facing 3D cameras of models from several smartphone makers next year, with Sony kicking off mass production in late summer to meet demand, said Satoshi Yoshihara, head of Sony’s sensor division.

He declined to provide sales or production targets, but said that the 3D business is already operating profitably and would make an impact on earnings from the fiscal year starting in April.

Sony’s bullish outlook for 3D cameras provides much-needed optimism to the global smartphone industry, which is suffering a slowdown as consumers find fewer reasons to upgrade devices.

The Tokyo-based company has started providing software toolkits to outside developers so that they can experiment with the chips and create apps that generate models of faces for communication or virtual objects for online shopping.

“Cameras revolutionized phones and, based on what I’ve seen, I have the same expectation for 3D,” said Yoshihara, who has worked for more than a decade on wider industry adoption of cameras in smartphones. “The pace will vary by field, but we’re definitely going to see adoption of 3D. I’m certain of it.”

Sony controls about half of the camera chip market and supplies customers including Apple, Alphabet Inc and Samsung Electronics Co, although Yoshihara declined to identify them by name, citing confidentiality agreements.

Huawei Technologies Co (華為) is employing Sony’s 3D cameras in next-generation models, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg earlier this month.

Sony is not the only maker of 3D chips, with rivals Lumentum Holdings Inc and STMicroelectronics NV already finding uses for them, such as unlocking phones through facial recognition or measuring depth to improve focus when taking pictures at night.

To be sure, demand for Sony’s technology is untested and it remains to be seen if consumer interest in 3D would be enough to snap the smartphone market out of its funk. Annual global shipments probably fell 3 percent this year with growth of just 2.6 percent expected for next year, International Data Corp said.

Yoshihara also said there will only be a need for two 3D chips on devices, for the front and back, despite a trend by smartphone makers to have three or more cameras.

During the interview, Sony showed several examples using a custom phone with a 3D camera on its rear.

In one app, users made specific hand gestures to cast magic spells inside a virtual game. In another, the phone calculated the depth of the room and accurately displayed a virtual goldfish swimming in front of and behind real-life objects.

“The most important thing in the coming year will be to get people excited,” Yoshihara said.

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