Over the next year or so, you might see smartphone makers touting time-of-flight (ToF) cameras on their phones.

Huawei’s Honor brand is among the first to bring this technology to a phone, with the Honor View 20, launched in India recently.

What is a ToF camera?

ToF is a camera sensor technology that uses infrared light to get depth information in a photo. The sensor emits a light signal, which is bounced back from the subject and returns to the sensor. The time taken for this process is measured, giving an accurate depth information that can be used for 3D imaging.

ToF sensors can emit light on their own (usually infrared light), which is used to measure distances. The sensors can recognize this from other incoming ambient light that’s falling on them.

How do ToF sensors help?

Getting accurate depth information can help improve portrait mode photos that almost every new smartphone can click. With ToF sensors the background blur in these shots can be better—at least theoretically. However the process still includes software, meaning how a company uses the information from the ToF sensor with its primary camera sensor will be more important. For instance, the Honor View 20’s portrait mode photos aren’t noticeably better than those clicked by competing devices.

Perhaps the most important usage for the ToF sensor though is in augmented reality. The sensor’s depth-mapping capabilities will help programs intermix the real and virtual worlds better.

In sum, ToF sensors certainly have benefits for users but whether they truly change smartphone cameras will depend on how manufacturers use them.

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