Oppo has shown off a new smartphone camera technology at Mobile World Congress that rethinks how to tackle the problem of zoom on a smartphone. Zooming is something that people do a lot on phones but generally the result is a downgraded quality of photo - it ends up grainy and blurred, because it's cropping the sensor, exposing its flaws.
Various phones have attempted to deal with the zoom factor; Apple's solution on the iPhone 7 Plus was to put two cameras on the back, with the second lens providing a closer shot, effectively like a fixed zoom lens. It gets you closer to the action without having to pinch and digitally move in. The 2x zoom is perhaps a little unambitious, however, as it's not a huge departure from regular camera.
Oppo's new technology will let you zoom in on subjects and landscapes further than any other smartphone can offer, including the iPhone 7 Plus, and this has been achieved by flipping the camera and using a prism to redirect the light path.
Chief among the tech that's made it possible for Oppo to produce such a camera is a design inspired by periscopes. While the structure inside the camera module isn't quite the same as periscopes used in tanks for example, it takes the telephoto lens and moves it by 90 degrees, so rather than face outwards, it instead faces a prism and sits 90-degrees to what you're shooting.
The prism takes light that enters the camera and send its to the sensor. The other lens in the Oppo's dual-camera setup is a standard wide angle lens, so again you have two cameras on the back of the phone.
The camera can only physically provide 3x optical zoom, but Oppo's own processing technology is able to provide digital zoom to bring it up to 5x zoom overall. Considering the module is built the way it is, you may be surprised to find out it's only 5.7mm thick, some 10 per cent slimmer than a typical 2x optical zoom lens on other smartphones - and the innovative and quite literal twist means you don't need a hugely thick phone.
Testing the system on Oppo's stand at Mobile World Congress, it certainly seems to work. The phone that Oppo has put this in is just a prototype, but it seems to work well enough. Looking at sample photos we've taken, we have clear shots that are substantially closer, without that loss of quality.
Key to this technology is optical image stabilisation. Both the prism and the lens array have OIS, meaning that you can hand-hold those 5x zoom photos without them going blurry.
With all things in tech, however, we're pretty certain that other versions of this tech will appear on other phones. The question is whether the zoom feature warrants the space in the phone body. Perhaps manufacturers will just continue to remove 3.5mm headphone sockets and fill the space with more camera technology instead.