A lot has already been leaked about the Galaxy Z Fold 3, but there are still one or two pieces that remain uncertain. One of those, the Unpacked 2021 date, may have been finally settled by the alleged remarks of a Samsung executive. The other big mystery is the form that the front-facing camera will take, which may be a typical punch-hole camera or Samsung’s first under-display camera or UDC. A new leak seems to lean more towards the latter, and many are not amused.
Samsung has long been rumored to be developing its own UDC solution even before it yielded to the punch-hole trend. ZTE beat it to the punch with the Axon 20 5G, and that was probably for the best. Given the criticisms surrounding the first-gen UDC, Samsung may have been able to avoid making ZTE’s mistakes.
The company’s first UDC has been rumored on and off again for the Galaxy Z Fold 3, and even the leaks are split on whether Samsung will push through or not. Ice universe’s latest render of the foldable phone suggests that UDC is in, but it might not come in the same way that ZTE’s implementation did.
For one, the supposedly invisible area above the front-facing camera is circular rather than square. For another, it is actually more visible and noticeable than ZTE’s attempts to hide that area of the screen, a design that isn’t sitting well with some people on Twitter. That said, it is an unofficial render and might not reflect the actual device.
The render also “confirms” some disappointing news about the Galaxy Z Fold 3’s other cameras. None of the three on the back show telltale signs of a periscope-style lens, limiting the phone’s telephoto capabilities. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 could follow in the footsteps of the Galaxy S21 or Galaxy S21+, both of which have only three cameras on their backs.
ZTE impressed the world when it announced it has the industry’s first smartphone with an under-display camera or UDC. The ZTE Axon 20 5G, unfortunately, didn’t impress reviewers when it came to that camera’s actual performance. When the company announced the Axon 30 series last April with a traditional punch-hole cutout, most presumed ZTE has given up on the technology. It turns out it may have just been biding its time to show off the hard lessons it learned from last year’s ZTE flagship.
UDCs are a sort of holy grail for smartphone makers, allowing them to push out almost all bezels without resorting to tricks like popup cameras or cutting out a part of the screen. The problem is that manufacturers will have to balance screen quality and allow light to pass through to the camera underneath. For its first attempt, the Axon 20 didn’t perform well on both accounts based on reviews.
There was a very visible square area above the camera where the screen density was noticeably lower than the surrounding area. That may have been negligible compared to the disappointing quality of photos and videos that the front under-display camera produced. It was a brave first try, and it almost seemed as if ZTE went back to the drawing board.
A new report from Chinese media now claims that isn’t the case and that the Axon 30, ZTE’s latest flagship, will have a new variant with an improved UDC. The company’s engineers have supposedly been able to figure out how to eliminate the effects of having an active screen area on top of the camera. In addition, the new module is said also to improve color reproduction, one of the biggest complaints about the ZTE Axon 20 5G’s front-facing camera.
According to the report, ZTE will announce the UDC variant of the ZTE Axon 30 this July. It will definitely be interesting how much it has improved, if at all, but it remains unknown if the company will also launch it in global markets just like it did the other Axon 30 models.
Now that Samsung’s “most powerful Galaxy” products have been revealed, all eyes will be turning to its next big event in about three months. That will be, of course, the pair of foldable phones, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and the Galaxy Z Flip 3, the latter reportedly skipping a number to match the former. Many of their expected features have already been leaked but now a few marketing materials show off some of those, including what may be an under-display camera for the Galaxy Z Fold 3.
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is already expect to support an S Pen, though it won’t be hiding inside the phone itself. Like the Galaxy S21 Ultra this year, it will be an optional accessory that will have to be stored outside, perhaps with a special case just for the foldable. A screen grab from what looks like a press render for the phone shows of one use case for it but it also hints at an unexpected surprise.
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 both have Flat Aluminum sides like Sony phones & iPhones.
As I said in today’s video, this is done to create an illusion that there is no gap, but in reality there is a very small one. pic.twitter.com/MZnuwPIYpL
The S Pen could be used to take notes by hand during a video call, as the leak above shows. That leak, however, also show no sign of a camera cutout, even a circular one. Indeed, the same source pretty much claims that the Galaxy Z Fold 3 will have an under-display camera, one that is claimed to be better than ZTE’s disappointing implementation on the ZTE Axon 20 5G.
Galaxy Z Fold 3
The camera is in the same spot as the Z Fold 2, but under the Display. It is alot better than the one ZTE used. pic.twitter.com/upBOG0MYt1
This leak was corroborated by another leak, this time coming with an image of the foldable phone’s back. Unlike this year’s Samsung flagships, it seems that the Galaxy Z Fold 3 won’t be adopting the new Contour Cut camera design on its back. It will have three cameras only, it seems, none of which show a periscope-style telephoto camera.
This new leak about an under-display camera, along with previous rumors about IP water resistance rating, S Pen support, and slimmer bezels, definitely make the Galaxy Z Fold 3 sound like Samsung’s most powerful Galaxy phone this year. There is still no firm word on when it will be announced, but it could happen as early as July if the company’s adjusted schedule is to be taken into account.
Stock Android hasn’t always kept up with the trends and development in biometric security. Fingerprint remains its strongest supported system and even then it only supports the traditional optical sensors on the back of phones or under power buttons. Face recognition is still the same crude one from years ago and not the hi-tech radar-based implementation that the Pixel 4 flaunted two years ago. Now it seems that Google is finally embracing the now-common under-display fingerprint scanning technology in Android 12 but it might also be exclusive to what will eventually become the Pixel 6.
Given how many smartphones there are with in-display fingerprint scanners, some might be surprised to hear that Android itself, at least the “pure” Android that comes from Google, doesn’t actually support the technology. In a nutshell, this means that each OEM rolls out their own proprietary implementation and that Custom ROMs that base their code on the Android Open Source Project or AOSP don’t have any such access.
The latest developer previews for Android 12 hinted that Udfps, short for “Under-display fingerprint scanner” is coming to the latest version of Google’s mobile platform. Back in the first dev preview, it wasn’t clear whether this would be available to AOSP or a Pixel exclusive. With DP2, however, XDA spotted hints that this feature is instead intended “com.google.android.systemui”, meaning it is specifically for a Pixel phone only.
The switch to using a fingerprint scanner comes at a time when facial recognition technologies on phones are unable to cope with people wearing face masks for protection. It’s still puzzling that Google took this long to finally add support for these under-display sensors but, then again, it has always been slow to jump on trends anyway. That is unless it creates its own, like the Soli-based facial recognition on the Pixel 4.
That said, this implementation does have one drawback, at least for third-party ROM makers and perhaps other OEMs. It still isn’t generic support for the technology that all Android developers will be able to hook into, leaving them to still rely on different implementations for now.
At MWC Shanghai, ZTE flaunted its next-gen technologies for under-display imaging sensors, including its second under-display camera or UDC. It remains the only smartphone maker that can boast of a commercial product that utilizes a screen with absolutely no cutout, but the ZTE Axon 20 5G can’t really boast of producing great selfies because of it. There may have been hopes that its next UDC would address this problem but while it does get an upgrade, it doesn’t actually address its most glaring issue.
There are two main hurdles when implementing an under-display camera. The first is how to mask the hole above the camera so that the screen looks flawless when the camera is not in use. The other is its diametrical opposite and deals with how to let light through the camera despite having “normal” screen pixels on top of it.
The new ZTE UDC improves on the former by increasing the pixel density of the patch of screen above the hidden camera from 200 to 400 ppi or pixels per inch. That means that, when displaying a large block of color, that area will hardly be visible. That said, that was hardly visible anyway on the first-gen UDC.
This, unfortunately, doesn’t exactly address the issue that the ZTE Axon 20 5G’s front-facing camera produced poor images and videos. In fact, it could even make that worse because a higher pixel density suggests more pixels packed together that will let less light through. ZTE hasn’t gone into detail about the new technology, though, so we’ll have to wait for its explanation.
The company also showed off what is the industry’s first under-display 3D structured light sensor for use in face and body recognition for AR or security applications. Both this and the UDC are expected to show up on the ZTE Axon 30 Pro though the date for that phone has not yet been leaked.
Last year, ZTE boasted about having accomplished what even the likes of Samsung still failed to do. It brought the world’s first commercially available under-display camera on a smartphone and explained how it pulled off this difficult trick. As much excitement as it generated, it also raised doubts on how it would work in practice. Early feedback was less than encouraging but perhaps the most damning comes from DxOMark’s review that almost put the ZTE Axon 20 5G at the bottom of its selfie list.
Putting a camera under an active display is no easy task, which at least justifies ZTE’s pride. Making it work, however, is one thing but making it work well is a whole different game. Unfortunately, DxOMark found very little to praise in the Axon 20 5G as far as the 32MP selfie camera is concerned apart from being an impressive party trick.
The camera’s biggest problems were in white balance and color, which actually isn’t surprising considering the technical hurdles that had to be overcome with this UDC technology. If you thought some phones produced pasty selfies, they have nothing on the color shading, color casts, and color quantization of the Axon 20 5G. Artifacts are also prominent and image quality degraded even further when the screen above the camera is actively emitting light, something that only ZTE’s camera app fixes.
Video is noted to be only a little less bad though has the same problems with color and exposure. Stable focus is the one good thing about it but that’s only because it has a fixed focus system.
With an average score of 26, the ZTE Axon 20 5G almost sinks to the bottom of DxOMark’s list for selfie tests, narrowly beating the ironically named Intex Aqua Selfie for the title of worst selfie camera. DxOMark does note that, for its price, the phone might still be good for other things, especially with its novelty. Just don’t expect much from selfies and video calls.
For decades, we’ve lived with an inconvenient technological truth: Cameras and other sensors cannot occupy the same space as our screens. It’s why, increasingly, smartphones rely on the dreaded “notch” as a way of maximizing screen-to-body ratios while preserving the front-facing camera and other sensors.
Some phone makers, from Oppo to OnePlus, get around this problem by using motorized pop-up cameras, while others have resorted to punching holes in displays to provide the camera with its own peephole. It’s also why even the latest high-end laptops still have pronounced bezels around their displays. The webcam needs a home and it seems no one is willing to live with a notch or hole-punch on a computer.
But it turns out that cameras and screens aren’t quite as incompatible as they seem. Thanks to improvements in manufacturing techniques, these two adversaries are about to end their long-standing territorial dispute. This isn’t a far-flung prediction; it’s happening right now.
By the end of 2021, we will see the first smartphones with invisible, under-display cameras (UDC). Laptops, tablets, and TVs will follow.
How will this be accomplished, and how will it change the way we use these devices?
Here’s a glimpse into our hidden camera future.
Why hide the camera?
Complaining about a phone notch, hole-punch or a large screen bezel is the very definition of a first-world problem. And judging from Apple’s stellar sales numbers, none of these side effects of forward-facing cameras are dealbreakers for buyers.
But aesthetics aside, there are three major benefits to hiding cameras behind displays.
First, it lets you make phones that have true edge-to-edge screens. Videos and photos look better, and app developers can make use of every square millimeter for their designs — all while keeping the phone’s body as small as possible.
Second, from a design and manufacturing point of view, if cameras and sensors can be placed anywhere, with fewer restrictions on their size and visibility, it redraws the map for phone design. Bigger batteries, thinner phones, more sensors, and much better cameras are all potential upsides.
But the third, and arguably biggest, benefit is the ability to line up the camera with our gaze.
Cameras placed in bezels or notches create the now all-too-familiar, awkward downward gaze that happens during video calls. “Most of the time, you’re not actually looking at each other when you’re talking over video chat,” Michael Helander, CEO at Toronto-based OTI Lumionics told Digital Trends. “The current placement of videoconferencing cameras in all of these devices is really suboptimal.”
Helander has probably thought about this problem more than most. His company creates specialty materials that enable what was once impossible — making displays transparent enough that you can place a camera behind them.
Once a camera is sitting behind the display, it will finally make our video interactions look and feel like real, in-person interactions — a game changer that couldn’t come at a better time in our COVID-restricted world.
How do you make a display transparent?
Screen technology is dominated by two kinds of displays. The most common are liquid crystal displays (LCD), which include LED TVs and QLED TVs. The second, organic light-emitting diode (OLED), dominates smartphones and tablets, and is growing in use in laptops and even desktop monitors
LCDs are actually transparent when not in use — that’s why you see a gray background on a calculator screen wherever the black digit segments aren’t active. But taking advantage of this transparency to take a photo poses big technical hurdles, especially once you factor in the need for a backlight.
The active portion of an OLED display, on the other hand, is paper-thin. Its various layers are measured in nanometers, making it the perfect candidate for transparency. Its nanometer-thin top layer of metal is already translucent for visible light, but infrared light is totally blocked.
So the question becomes, how can you increase OLED’s transparency without damaging the display with cutouts?
One solution favored by Xiaomi and Oppo in their UDC prototypes is to rely on an OLED pixel’s inherent transparency. When an OLED pixel isn’t being used to emit light, it lets light in. So you can place a camera behind an OLED display and it will be able to gather enough light to capture images. But there’s a catch: You still need to place the camera at the top or bottom of the screen, because when the camera is active, the OLED pixels above it must be shut off, which creates a temporary black area on the screen. That approach is a solution to the notch and hole-punch problem, but it does nothing to solve the downward gaze issue.
Another way to achieve transparency is by creating small physical holes that fit between a display’s pixels, but that’s incredibly difficult in its own right.
The first commercially available phone with an under-display camera — the ZTE Axon 20 5G — uses this technique, but it also suffers from a less-than-ideal compromise. Modern smartphones have incredibly densely packed pixels. The iPhone 12 Pro has a 460ppi (pixels per inch) display, which means that there are more than 200,000 pixels in one square inch. Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium had a whopping 807ppi screen (more than 650,000 pixels per square inch).
Punching holes in between those pixels, even with a laser, is so tricky that ZTE had to remove some pixels from the area above the camera to buy some extra room. The result is a noticeably lower-resolution square on the screen.
What’s also noticeable (because of the size of the holes) is the camera itself, which becomes visible at some angles.
A lower-resolution section of the screen might not bother you when it’s near the top, in an area that’s used mostly for inconsequential information. But few people would accept such an obvious reduction of resolution in the center of their phone’s display, which is what we would need to counteract the downward-gaze problem.
See and be seen
But there is a third option. What if, instead of relying on transparent pixels, or punching holes in the display after assembly, you could create millions of tiny holes in each layer of an OLED display during manufacturing?
Through a process known as patterning, existing manufacturing techniques have brought us tantalizingly close to this scenario.
“We know how to do that in the TFT [thin-film transistor] layer,” Helander said. “We know how to do that in the bottom electrode. We know how to do that in the layer that makes up all of the different pixels.” But the top metal layer, also known as the cathode, isn’t created like these other layers, and that poses a unique engineering challenge.
The top metal cathode isn’t a sheet of metal in the conventional sense. Instead of bonding a separate metal sheet to the top of the display, metal molecules are vaporized and allowed to condense over the entire surface, a process known as vapor deposition.
Trouble is, once that metal layer has been deposited, there’s no way to pattern it. That brings us to OTI Lumionics’ secret sauce.
“The technology that we’ve developed is a way of patterning millions of tiny holes in that layer during the manufacturing process through what’s called self-assembly,” Helander said. “When you lay all these materials together, they’ll naturally form all of these little openings in the display, millions of them.”
Helander claims the self-assembly process works on any screen size, and lets manufacturers decide how many openings are needed — from just one to 1 billion.
Once these openings exist, visible and infrared light can pass through unimpeded.
Trust, but verify
As exciting as it is to think that we’ll soon be able to have much more natural video calls, placing a camera under a display puts an even bigger onus on manufacturers to provide trustworthy privacy measures.
We’ll need some kind of reliable indicator of when the camera is active and an equally reliable way of disabling it. Because it’s under the screen, there’s no way to physically block the lens without blocking content on the screen as well.
Apple recently updated iOS to show a small green dot near the notch when its forward-facing camera is in use, and an orange dot to show when the mic is active. That’s a good way to inform us of what’s going on, but we need something more.
Smart speakers like the Google Nest mini ship with physical switches that can be used to disable the microphones. Assuming that there’s no way to remotely overcome the switch’s position, it provides a very good level of trust. A similar mechanism on TVs, monitors, and laptops should come standard once cameras become invisible.
When will under-display cameras start showing up?
OTI Lumionics already has agreements in place with several Chinese smartphone manufacturers, but due to confidentiality restrictions, these companies can’t be named just yet. “Many of them have prototype phones that have been built and everything looks great,” Helander notes, “but none of them want to disclose anything publicly until they’re ready for their actual official product announcements.” He’s confident that we’ll see these new under-display camera models sometime in 2021, although they may remain a Chinese market exclusive until 2022.
How much will they cost?
I was fully prepared for Helander to tell me that only the most premium smartphones, commanding prices of $1,000 or more, would be first to market with UDCs. But the first models are expected to be midtier handsets. He attributes this to the ferocious competition among the Chinese brands in the $400 to $600 smartphone market, which has led to a willingness to try new features faster, even if they fail to catch on.