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OnePlus Concept One's 'disappearing' camera is mostly a gimmick

The Concept One feature everyone's talking about leaves a bit to be desired.

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The OnePlus Concept One at CES 2020.

Lynn La/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

Chinese phone-maker OnePlus generally keeps a quiet presence at CES, preferring instead to hold off any phone news until after the show in the spring and fall. But during a press conference at this year's biggest tech show, it announced its first concept phone, known as the OnePlus Concept One. The Concept One features a special glass that uses an electrical current to tint the lens of the rear cameras, making them "disappear." When the cameras aren't in use, the glass is opaque and black. When it's time to launch the camera, the glass turns transparent and the cameras are visible. 

Though largely for aesthetics and novelty, the feature does double as a neutral-density filter for the camera, letting you tweak a photo's exposure. (You can turn it on and off in the Pro mode of the camera.) The idea sounds nifty enough, especially as a camera filter. The switch also works pretty quickly; it takes less than a second -- 0.7 second to be exact, about the same amount of time it takes to launch the camera, according to OnePlus. 

But up close, it's a little underwhelming. Personally, I never really had an issue with seeing camera lenses. While it's true that Apple and Google raised some eyebrows last year with their obtrusive square camera bumps, it was the thickness and size of the bumps themselves that bothered people, not the visibility of the lenses.

Now playing: Watch this: OnePlus Concept One phone has a 'disappearing' camera
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The OnePlus Concept One's product manager, Xi Zeng, also emphasized during the presser how this feature embodies "beauty in the unseen" and the company's "burdenless philosophy." As more phones add more cameras, we'll reach a point where we'd want to obscure them.

I'd understand this if OnePlus showed off the feature on an all-black phone. But the company demonstrated it on last year's OnePlus 7T Pro with a loud orange design (branded "papaya orange") that looks like it's wearing a laceless corset. This may not be the final look of the phone once it's released, but all that leather and orange and stitching and extra lines OnePlus highlighted weren't exactly minimalistic.

OnePlus worked on the phone for 18 months and got the idea through its partnership with supercar company McLaren. You can see this kind of opaque-transforming glass, known as electrochromic glass, in the sunroofs of luxury cars like those made by McLaren, but it's also in office windows and fancy club bathroom mirrors. I myself have seen it in those environments… on TV.

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Lynn La/CNET

The phone kind of reminded me of those ridiculous, leather-clad $5,000 Vertu luxury phones, except slightly better looking. And since OnePlus' device will be more expensive than its regular phones given all the R&D and materials that went into it, it's a wonder who exactly this phone is for other than rich, diehard McLaren fans. As for specific details, the company didn't announce pricing or availability.

OnePlus is continuing to explore different applications of electrochromic glass, so perhaps in the near future we'll see a OnePlus phone that can change the transparency of its whole back (in case you wanted to look at your battery once in a while?). For now, the Concept One isn't as ambitious and far-reaching as concept phones go, but it still marks the company's first CES announcement and offers an early glimpse of where OnePlus is heading.

What do you all think? Is it nuts that I'm not absolutely jazzed about this? Would you buy this yourself? Let me know in the comments.

Originally published Jan. 7.