Photography

Intel's RealSense 3D tech offers glimpse at future of mobile cameras

The Dell Venue 8 7000 series is the world's thinnest tablet. But its standout feature is Intel's RealSense depth camera that, when it makes its way to smartphones, will revamp mobile photography.

intel-depth-camera.jpg
The new Dell Venue 8 7000 Series tablet contains an Intel camera technology that could take mobile photography to the next level. Dell

SAN FRANCISCO--Snapping touristy shots with a tablet is a modern day taboo, but that may change for users of Dell's Venue 8 7000 series. The device -- the thinnest tablet in the world at 6 millimeters -- is fast and flashy and feels great running the latest version of Google's Android mobile operating system.

But the less pronounced, yet important, feature is Intel's RealSense 3D tech, a depth-capturing camera technology that can transfer the coolest features of high-end light-field photography to everyday mobile devices. That opens up possibilities not just for mobile photography, but for all the next-gen camera applications like augmented reality games, 3D video, and real-time environment mapping.

Light-field cameras, also called plenoptic cameras, are a burgeoning branch of photo tech that pushes digital photography to its extremes, letting users go so far as to alter the way the captured light affects the scene. By using a specialized lens array, cameras like the Lytro Illum capture 3D images that can be refocused after they are taken. No, not the cheap Instagram tilt shift effect that simply blurs out a portion of the image, but a device that can capture an image in multiple layers, letting you change how the light affects those different segments while retaining photo quality.

Intel's RealSense 3D snapshot -- a specific variety of its tech reserved for front-facing cameras -- packs down that core concept into an array of cameras embedded in the tablet. That allows the device to pull off a high-quality depth-of-field alteration just like a light-field camera. The cameras also allows accurate distance measurements, both on its surface and within photos if the subject of the image is within a few meter of the camera lens at the time of capturing.

"I like to think of it as an infinite number of layers you can separate out. You can do measurements, filtering, and a variety of other things," Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said Tuesday at the company's developer conference in San Francisco. Krzanich invited Dell CEO Michael Dell onstage to unveil the new Venue 8 tablet during his IDF 2014 keynote address.

Intel RealSense has yet to be shown off on anything but the new Dell Venue 8, which is due out later this year and doesn't yet have a concrete price tag. But Hermann Eul, an Intel general manager in charge of mobile devices and communication, says nothing is keeping the technology from migrating to mobile phones.

"When we started with the engineers talking about it [RealSense], there was some conservativeness around it," Eul told CNET with regards to the getting the technology to fit into such a thin package. But after getting it to work in a tablet form factor, the group has begun testing it in other device types. "We know what needs to be done, so we're sure it can be done."

One particular useful application that we could see trickle down into smartphones by as early as next year, Eul noted, was the ability to filter a photo in segments. Because RealSense captures multiple layers, you can slide your finger along a photo and apply a black-and-white or saturation-heavy filter to each successive slice of the frame. That's just scratching the surface, Eul added.

One could imagine our smartphones soon carrying the capability to 3D map and render full environments that we can edit like a still photo or interact with through augmented reality interfaces. Though for now, those are little more than techie dreams buried in the to-do lists of mobile skunkworks over at Intel, Google, Microsoft and other companies with plentiful R&D projects.

For now, the wonders of small-scale light-field photography effects remain reserved for a tablet -- albeit a super thin one -- that we still may not be comfortable whipping out in public to take someone's picture.