A recently discovered patent application outlines an Apple-designed system that uses lasers and image sensors to facilitate a sense of depth perception.
The application - obtained by AppleInsider - describes various methods of harnessing the laser-based system to measure distance to an object and its depth, allowing for new virtual device input and camera autofocusing technology.
Essentially, the application describes a system that uses a fan-shaped laser beam along with an imaging system similar to what you would find inside of a digital camera. Together, the camera sensor and the laser are able to calculate depth.
For the system to work properly, the laser beam has to be a variable shape and intersect with a portion of the camera's field of view in at least one location. The resulting data allows the system to accurately determine the distance from an object, along with limited physical attributes of the object based on how the laser beam reacts.
According to AppleInsider, the system described in the patent app is capable of observing how laser light reflects off objects and returns to the sensor.
"In one example, the image capturing device may take a first image with the laser source turned off so that the beam is not present and then may take a second image with the laser source turned on and with the beam projected. The processor may then analyze the two images to extract an image of the beam alone," the description reads.
"In another example, the image capturing device may include a filter such as a wavelength or optical filter and may filter out wavelengths different from the beam wavelength. In this example, the beam may be isolated or removed from other aspects of the image. The isolation of the beam may assist in evaluating the resulting shape or deformed shape of the beam to determine object depth."
Apple's patent application proposes a number of uses for the depth sensing laser technology, including the creation of a two-dimensional representation of a specific scene or surface map for an object. Perhaps the most interesting use could be the creation of a virtual keyboard or other types of virtual controls for Apple's wildly popular lineup of mobile iOS devices.