Are our phones ready for interchangeable lenses?

Phone manufacturers are in a constant battle to one-up each other when it comes to the camera capabilities of their devices. Now, it looks like Apple has patented a novel new way to differentiate the iPhone from its competitors.

iPhone 11
Future iPhones may get detachable lenses. Photo: Apple

With last year’s iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, Apple followed current industry trends, adding multiple rear facing cameras to both models.

The iPhone 11 got two rear facing cameras, like the iPhone X and iPhone XS before it, while the iPhone 11 Pro got three cameras.

Three rear facing cameras was a first for the iPhone, but it certainly wasn’t a first for the smartphone industry in general.

Pretty much all smartphone brands have transitioned to multiple-camera setups on both the front and rear of their devices.

It’s taking increasingly ambitious specs and design features to set smartphones apart from the competition. But Apple appears to have patented something new which may turn heads.

Apple’s new patent

According to reports by Apple World Today, Apple has just received approval for a patent which outlines a system for attaching external camera lenses to the rear of an iPhone.

The US patent was approved on 14 January, but it appears Apple filed it back in 2017. As you can see in the schematic below, Apple’s design features channels which receive small protrusions on the sides of the detachable lens. The attachment then locks in place when turned.

iPhone detachable lens system.
An Apple patent for a detachable lens system has recently been approved. Photo: United States Patent and Trademark Office/Apple

The new attachment should bypass some of the issues which could arise with more permanent lens attachment methods, such as adhesive bonds.

In the patent filing, Apple says that its ‘interlock arrangement’ should help protect the attachment from damage sustained during drops or falls. Another feature referenced in the patent is voice-activated motors and processors.

Good news for third-party lens developers

While the new lens attachment system has been designed by Apple itself, there appears to be some scepticism as to whether the manufacturer will actually make external lenses which make use of it.

Both Apple World Today and investigative tech news website Piunika Web think that the chances of Apple actually making any external lenses are small.

Instead, the attachment would be useful for third-parties looking to sell detachable lenses for the iPhone. However, creating a feature just for the benefit of third-party developers is just about the least ‘Apple’ thing imaginable.

Apple’s previous attempt at patenting detachable lenses

Although we haven’t seen detachable lenses as a feature on any iPhone models in the past, this isn’t the first time Apple has dabbled with the idea.

Back in 2012, Cult of Mac reported on schematics for another detachable iPhone lens system, as you can see below. The patent, which was filed back in 2010, featured a system which resembled a detachable case, including optical and electrical components.

Old detachable lens patent
Apple has previously explored the idea of detachable camera lenses. Photo: United States Patent and Trademark Office/Apple

Although the patent was granted, this particular system never made it to market. This may well end up being the case with new system, but it at least offers a glimpse into Apple’s thought process when it comes to setting the iPhone apart from the competition.

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