Front-facing cameras that are able to see through smartphone display panels were theorized long before we thought it even possible to produce them and some see them as something of a holy grail in the oh-so-noble fight against bezels. Recent teases from Xiaomi and Oppo would lead us to believe the technology could make it into a consumer product sooner rather than later, and now I've had a chance to see what stage it's currently at. It's not ready quite yet, but it shouldn't be too far out now.
At Oppo's Inno Day event in Shenzhen yesterday, we were able to play around with working prototypes that feature a camera hidden underneath a small square section within the top of the screen. This futuristic camera tech wasn't the only interesting thing about this unnamed device, as it was also without any ports or physical buttons — a couple of microphone holes are all that break up the otherwise uninterrupted chassis.
We've seen portless phones before, of course, and rumors persist that Apple will launch an iPhone in the not-too-distant future that can only be charged wirelessly. This seems like a risky strategy given the amount of work that's gone into wired fast charging — like Oppo's own crazy fast 65W Super VOOC, for example — and the fact that phones become practically useless when on a wireless charging pad. However, removing the headphone jack would have been considered risky at one point, but few (if any) flagship phones will ship with one in 2020. This is what progress looks like, apparently.
Pressure-sensitive power and volume buttons were used by HTC on the U12+ and garnered much criticism, so I can't say this aspect of Oppo's concept phone excites me much. The under-display camera is another matter entirely, though. OEMs are obsessed with making the perfect bezel-less smartphone — the all-screen dream, if you will — and while I know this is as much about differentiation in order to drive sales as it is about the pursuit of the perfect phone, it's undeniable that low-bezel devices like the OnePlus 7 Pro are a sight to behold. If we can get to a place where all the sensors and lenses can be hidden underneath the display, we also remove the need for novel mechanical pop-up or slide-out cameras that make phones less robust, thicker, and more difficult to waterproof.
Oppo is calling this a Perspective Panoramic Screen and compared with the version it first teased back in the summer, the square area on the display that's visibly different from the rest of it is now smaller. With a dark background, it's practically unnoticeable in normal use, but set a brighter wallpaper and it does become very apparent. Even then, it's arguably less distracting than a notch or punch-hole cutout. Future iterations of the under-display camera will surely make it less conspicuous, but the quality of the photos it takes will also be paramount. From my brief time with it, the prototype seems to take photos that are good enough to share on social media or with friends, but I'm sure pixel-peeping would show the image quality to be lacking compared with the best front cams on modern flagships. If you seldom take selfies, this might not be a huge problem, but manufacturers will want to maximize camera quality before they bring this to market.
Representatives from Oppo wouldn't be drawn on when we're likely to see this concept realized in a consumer product, but it's certainly more polished than I expected it would be, so I'd like to think we won't have too long to wait. 2020 might be a bit optimistic, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a device with this technology hit the shelves the year after that. We'll have to put up with more unsightly notches and cutouts until then.