Apple is hoping to stem the tide of sluggish iPhone sales. Apple is hoping to stem the tide of sluggish iPhone sales. Apple is hoping to stem the tide of sluggish iPhone sales. (Photo: Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty Images)

Apple's 2020 iPhone may feature an Israeli-made 3D camera

With a range of 15 feet, it could be used to create an augmented reality of the real world.

Debating whether to get the latest iPhone? You might want to wait until 2020.

Bloomberg News is reporting that Apple is planning to include a 3D camera in its phones as early as next year. The purpose? To scan the environment around you so you can use your phone for augmented reality (AR) purposes. Point your camera at anything in the real world – a busy intersection for example – and a layer or useful information can be added to all that you see. It's like something out of a sci-fi movie.

For Apple, the leap into 3D cameras goes back a few years. In 2017, the Cupertino-based tech giant acquired the Israeli startup RealFace, which provides the technology that allows your face to unlock your phone by simply looking at your screen. It does this by using a less powerful front-facing 3D camera that can only detect objects about a foot or two in front of it. The new lens for 2020 is expected to be on the back of the phone, the camera people use to take most of their photos. The 3D camera is expected to have a much longer range of about 15 feet. According to the report, it's "designed to scan the environment to create three-dimensional reconstructions of the real world."

Analysts at UBS say Apple already has 1,000 engineers in Israel working on augmented reality. Apple's three research and development centers in Israel continue to expand, with 154 job openings now available – mostly in software and hardware engineering. Its largest is a 180,000-square-foot Mediterranean R&D lab in the coastal Israeli city of Herzliya. It is Apple's largest outside of the United States.

Apple has usually unveiled new iPhone models in the fall of even years, and releasing minor modifications and updates to those phones in odd years. This strategy is known in the industry as "tick-tock": 2018 was a "tick" year and 2019 will be a "tock" one, when only updates to current models are expected. That would make 2020 a "tick" year, one in which a major innovation like an augmented reality camera might be added.

Sales of new iPhones have slowed down recently, while the company's other products – the iPad, Mac computer and software – are on the rise. Apple, which became the first publicly traded American company to be worth more than $1 trillion, is under increased pressure to come up with new whiz-bang features for its stalwart iPhone. And it appears that augmented reality is what they're betting on. Apple CEO Tim Cook has referred to AR as a technology that “will transform the way you work, play, connect, and learn.”

An aerial view of downtown Herzliya in Israel.An aerial view of downtown Herzliya in Israel where Apple's Israel R&D offices are located. (Photo: Roman Yanushevsky / Shutterstock)

In addition to RealFace, Apple has made three more acquisitions of Israeli startups:

  • In 2011, it acquired Anobit, whose flash memory technologies helped in creating the largest storage available on an iPhone – 256 gigabytes.
  • In 2014, it added PrimeSense, which is behind the "3D touch" home button that reacts differently depending on how hard you press it.
  • In 2015, LinX Computational Imaging that produces innovative cameras for smartphones and tablets.

With this expansion in Israel, it should come as no surprise that in 2014, Apple also moved to shore up its corporate connection to the country, appointing Israel-born Johny Srouji to Vice President of Hardware Technologies. Srouji, a graduate of Israel's Technion Institute of Technology, is responsible for many of Apple’s industry-leading devices.

"Apple is in Israel because the engineering talent and the brilliance of the people are incredible," Cook said during a visit to Israel. "We have an enormous admiration for Israel."

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Apple's 2020 iPhone may feature an Israeli-made 3D camera
Apple iPhone's 3D camera could be used to create an augmented reality of the real world.