Front-facing cameras have been the bane of smartphone design for the past few years. As screens get bigger and bigger and bezels get smaller and smaller, there ends up being nowhere to put a front camera that doesn’t interfere with the display. Manufacturers have mostly settled on clunky solutions that involve making the display as big as possible and just cutting out whatever chunks you need to support the front camera. This started as a notch-shaped cutout, and companies have lately worked that down to a single circle that looks like someone took a hole punch tool to the display.
The holy grail of front camera design is the under-display front camera. Why worry about the camera placement at all when you can just shove it behind the display? Manufacturers have been floating this idea in public since at least last year, with Xiaomi leading the charge. Today, the company is back with video footage of what it’s calling its “third-generation” under-display camera technology, even though generations one and two never came to market.
With the caveat that this is highly biased promotional material, Xaiomi’s new camera looks darn near invisible in all but one shot of the video. In the worst shot, which we captured above, the display looks darker than normal over top of the camera area. An under-display camera needs to see through the spaces between the pixels, and that involves thinning out the display somewhat. Xiaomi’s graphic shows that early prototypes would remove 75 percent of the pixels above the camera, but the latest “third-generation” technique keeps the full display resolution and uses smaller pixels above the camera, uses smaller pixels above the camera, basically just increasing
the dot pitch the space between pixels.
Even if Xiaomi is overselling things and the camera section of the display looks a little odd, the alternative here is complete and total blackness. The under-display camera area is the same size as a camera cutout, and in that case, I think a few funny-looking pixels are a better alternative than no pixels at all. The real question we don’t have the answer to is “how will this affect the selfie camera quality?” since placing pixels in front of a camera can’t be good for image quality. Manufacturers will probably have to pick between a high-quality selfie camera or a more seamless display.
One thing that doesn’t make sense about Xiaomi’s video and graphics is that the video shows a square camera cutout while the graphic shows a much nicer-looking round cutout. Frequent smartphone leaker Ice Universe has pictures of a Xiaomi prototype with a round cutout, and it looks great. Ice says the display is from China Star Optoelectronics Technology (CSOT), a division of TCL.
Today there are actually quite a few optical components that live underneath a smartphone display. For years, phones have been packing in under-display optical fingerprint sensors, which, like a camera, are CMOS sensors that look through the display pixels. Reading your fingerprint is a lot easier than taking a high-quality picture, though, since the image quality only needs to be good enough to resolve your fingerprint. We also regularly see under-display ambient light and proximity sensors, (most recently in the Pixel 4a) further reducing the need for a top bezel.
Xiaomi says it “aims to bring this technology to the mass market next year.” Xiaomi’s whole announcement is really designed to preempt ZTE, which has already claimed the “world’s first under-display camera smartphone” title for the ZTE Axon 20 5G, a phone that will be announced next week.