Modular cameras star in Xiaomi's latest patents

Modular cameras star in Xiaomi's latest patents
The race for smaller bezels, and notch-free experiences is central to many recent innovations from smartphone companies, resulting in a number of creative methods of obtaining larger, more immersive screens. Xiaomi is no stranger to this kind of effort, and its latest patent offers a glimpse at yet another possible path to the no-bezel future—a detachable camera module.

The selfie camera is often the biggest obstacle to an edge-to-edge display, requiring a crucial spot among prime real estate. As 91Mobiles spotted, Xiaomi is attempting to circumvent this problem by having a removable camera module housed in the rear of the device that could be attached to the top of the phone whenever a selfie camera is required.

The patent includes a number of images, which show a dual-lens shooter that attaches to the top edge of the device via magnets. The patent description explains that the camera may communicate with the smartphone wirelessly, making use of technologies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, or some combination of these.

The goal of this, of course, is to leave that display fully devoted to pixels, without cutouts, notches, hole-punches of any variety. Indeed, the patent images show an edge-to-edge display wholly uninterrupted, a feat that’s not commonly accomplished.

This kind of magnetic camera isn’t the first of its kind. Motorola collaborated with Hasselblad for a magnetic Moto Mod back in 2016, which offered 10x optical zoom, mediocre results, and buggy software. Elsewhere, the Essential Phone also offered a 360-degree camera that attached via two metallic pins, an accessory that would become just one of two magnetic attachments for the ill-fated device. 

Of course, Xiaomi’s patent differs in that it’s not an accessory but the actual main camera, which changes the story. It’s possibly more akin to efforts like Asus’s Zenfone 6 and 7, which offers a fancy hinged camera, or the Samsung Galaxy A80, which has its display slide down to accommodate a camera module that flips. Like these smartphones, using the rear camera as a front-facing shooter could potentially result in superior selfies.

This kind of daring camera tech brings a whole host of possibilities, but also a number of important questions. Will the camera’s wireless communication work fast enough to avoid lag or delays? How big of an image sensor can fit into the small module? What if it’s lost or dropped? These are the sort of problems Xiaomi will need to solve for its fledgling tech to really take off.

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Perhaps the grandest possibility: could this phone offer customizable, truly modular cameras? Imagine, a wide-angle lens for the modern photographer, but just a primary shooter for those who don’t think it's worth the extra cost. Modular smartphones have never really caught on (and not for a lack of attempts—hello, Google Ara and LG G5), but if Xiaomi pulls it off, it could be an exciting development for the industry, not to mention consumers.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Patentscope online database, the company has applied for intellectual property of this tech at least six months ago. It’s also applied for and received this same patent in the United States, China, South Korea, Europe, and other territories over the past weeks, so we may actually see this phone take shape in the coming months or years.

Of course, none of this is even close to reality at the moment. If Xiaomi actually sold every concept it holds a patent for, the smartphone market would be a far weirder place. But still, this patent is another cool take from a company that continues to push boundaries, and one we’ll need to keep an eye out for.

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