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Apple patent application hints at future FaceTime features

Apple's FaceTime video chat technology could one day be getting a feature that automates switching back and forth between the two cameras, opening up the device to new uses.

Apple's new camera-swapping patent application promises to switch back and forth between multiple cameras depending on what's happening.
Apple's new camera-swapping patent application promises to switch back and forth between multiple cameras depending on what's happening. USPTO

Swapping between the front- and rear-facing cameras on Apple's latest-generation iOS devices during a FaceTime call is currently a manual process, requiring users to tap an onscreen button. But that could become a thing of the past with a system Apple hopes to patent.

Patently Apple has unearthed a patent application Apple filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in January of last year titled "automatic video stream selection." In short, it's a system for automatically swapping between the two captured video streams depending on what's happening in front of each lens.

Apple's camera swap button. Apple

The described system takes into account both sound and what's being recorded to determine which feed should be used. When it picks up on sound or movement, the patent says the system would simply switch streams to keep the user from having to do anything on their own.

The patent notes that there are two modes to make the switch happen: a "report mode" and an "interview mode." Both figure out who's doing the talking using the device's microphones and picking up on whatever lip movements are captured by the camera. The patent also mentions that users would be able to record the feed from the stream, which cannot currently be done during a FaceTime call, suggesting the feature could end up as part of the camera app instead. (Worth noting is that attempting to swap cameras while making a video recording through the camera app is currently prohibited on Apple's iOS devices.)

Besides the obvious benefit of auto-switching for consumer-driven FaceTime video calls, the technology could play an integral role in making FaceTime more of a tool for businesses. Apple says as much in the patent, noting that the special mode can be used "when there are several people participating in a video conference." Microsoft's RoundTable conference hardware (now the Polycom CX5000) and Google'svideo chat hangouts in Google+ offer similar camera-swapping features during group chat, as do a number of competing products.

As a reminder, this is a patent application and not a patent that's been granted to the company. And as always, it's worth taking these illustrations and ideas with a grain of salt, as they are not guaranteed to become a part of shipping products. Nonetheless, many have.