Meet the small 360 camera module that will fit into phones

You’re probably not aware of this, but a Chinese company dubbed ProTruly has already released the world’s first two smartphones with a built-in 360 camera last December. Don’t worry if you missed the news, because chances are you’d be put off by the devices’ sheer bulkiness, but according to HT Optical, this may no longer be the case with the next release. At MWC Shanghai, I came across this Wuhan-based company which happened to be the 360 camera module supplier of not just ProTruly, but also of Xiaomi for its recent Mi Sphere Camera.

As I was mocking the ridiculousness of the ProTruly Darling phones displayed at the booth, HT Optical’s Vice President Shu Junfeng pulled me to a side and gave me a sneak peek at what’s coming next: a much smaller 360 camera module that can fit into a 7.6mm-thick smartphone, yet it’ll take 16-megapixel stills — a massive jump from, say, the Insta360 Air dongle’s 4.5-megapixel resolution, and also a tad more than the latest Samsung Gear 360’s 15-megapixel offering.

Future “VR smartphones” will look much less ridiculous than this ProTruly Darling.

I wasn’t sure whether it was excitement or skepticism that my face expressed upon hearing this claim, but it prompted Shu to show me some photos — which he wasn’t able to share for this article — of an upcoming smartphone that will feature this new module. Indeed, the device looked more like a conventional smartphone, as opposed to the 8.9mm-thick and 181.4mm-tall ProTruly Darling pictured above (and just for reference, the iPhone 7 Plus is 7.3mm thick and 158.2mm tall).

Also, the lenses on this mysterious phone’s module apparently add just an extra 1mm to the overall thickness, which means the camera will be less of an annoyance during phone calls or when placed in our pockets. This still doesn’t stop either lens from touching whatever surface you place the phone on, but Shu assured me that these lenses will feature a tough scratch resistant coating on the lenses.

Shu then showed me what he claimed to be a 16-megapixel 360 still taken with that new camera module, and the image was surprisingly sharp for such a tiny module. Needless to say, I was able to zoom into that image much further than I would with the photos from my Insta360 Air. While there was no sample video to show me, the exec said this little module can shoot 4K videos which is also impressive. I guess we’ll see more when this phone launches in China on July 30th.

As a firm that used to deal with camera makers like Sony and Olympus, HT Optical has dabbled with other kinds of product categories following the decline of the compact digital camera market. On top of the smartphone VR camera, I was also intrigued by the company’s phone cases with integrated optical zoom camera. The one highlighted above comes with 5x optical zoom, for instance, and it has its own microSD slot. It’s a similar idea to the Hasselblad MotoMod for Moto Z series, except you can plug any iPhone or Android phone — depending on the plug type — into this one. As a bonus, thanks to their built-in battery, the cases can capture images by themselves when needed, so long as you’re comfortable with the lack of a viewfinder.

It’s hard to tell whether this type of phone case will ever take off, but for the smartphone VR camera module, Shu reckoned it’ll take at least a year or two before it becomes a mainstream feature. For now, he’s happy to focus on working with the smaller mobile brands that tend to be more daring.

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Meet the wearable tablet you might use at your next job

There’s no way I would wear the Rufus Cuff wrist computer. After a few minutes with this 3.2-inch Android tablet strapped to my body, my wrist started to get all sweaty. It felt bulky, weird and to be honest, not very cool. But if the massive pre-orders are any indication, there is clearly a market out there. In particular, says the company’s CEO, Gabe Grifoni, in a few years something like the Cuff will replace the iPhone in your pocket and even be part of your next work uniform.

I’ll admit, I was initially dubious that a device that makes me feel like a less-cooler version of Leela from Futurama will be the first step of an inevitable wearable-computer revolution. But then Grifoni began telling me about potential industrial uses for the Cuff and it all started to make sense.

Employers believe that small Bluetooth-enabled Android tablets on their employees’ arms are a pretty good idea, according to feedback from the companies that have reached out to Rufus. With an app and a connected scanner, tasks like inventory, housekeeping at hotels and ticket-taking can be streamlined by freeing up the hands of the employees who would otherwise have to hold a tablet. The relatively low $ 300 price tag also means that smaller companies without the deep pockets of corporations could also get in on the action.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Grifoni started getting unexpected calls from businesses and their employees. “We were starting to get all these emails from warehouse workers and hotels.” he told Engadget. He says he’s talked to UPS and other companies about their employees using the Cuff in the workplace.

While the campaign generated $ 800,000 in pre-orders, Grifoni realized that enterprise is where all the growth is right now. But don’t worry, early adopters, the company will still sell the Cuff to consumers. Just beware that you’re not going to be rocking the latest generation of technology. Specifically, the pre-production unit I tried out had a 400×240 3.2-inch screen, which will look absolutely ancient next to your modern-day smartphone. Also, the 640×480 front-facing camera is guaranteed to make all your selfies look awful.

The actual bracelet portion of the device looks fine, though, and at least kept the Cuff mostly parallel with my arm. That said, while I would probably get used to having a computer on my wrist all day, it’s not something I’d look forward to. Did I mention it made my arm sweaty?

Grifoni predicts that wearable computers (not smartwatches) will be the norm in five to 10 years. We’ll get tired of pulling our phones out of our pockets and instead opt to have them visible at all times.

Maybe he’s right. It’s possible the future of mobile computing could be attached to our bodies. But even if he’s wrong, if he can get the Cuff into businesses and warehouses, it doesn’t really matter if the world’s population embraces tablets on their bodies in their free time because at work, some of us will get them with our nametags.

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