Who can forget the controversy of The Notch. As smartphone companies stretched screen sizes to their theoretical maximums, they realized components like the front-facing selfie camera were getting in the way. Manufacturers wanted to shrink what are known as bezels, those picture frames around the screen. But cameras necessitated bezels! Design was at an impasse.
So, around 2017, the startup Essential introduced the notch, which sliced a controversial black chunk into the screen. Apple jumped on board with the iPhone X, and critics freaked out (the phone never sold that well either). One app developer even designed software to erase the notch. In the three years since, the notch has evolved into more of a hole punch. (Ignore the pop-up camera and sliding phone designs that companies tried along the way—some creatures try to evolve but just go extinct instead.) Phones like the upcoming Pixel 5 or the Samsung Galaxy S10 feature a tiny, perfectly round lens in the corner. But even that lens is still a break in the otherwise seamless screen—a glaringly imperfect design solution, however small.
Now, the Chinese tech giant Xiaomi—which controls about 10% of the global smartphone market share—has teased a once-and-for-all solution to the selfie camera. It’s a camera that lives under the screen and photographs in the microscopic gaps between the screen’s pixels. To make this possible, Xiaomi shrunk the actual pixel size on its display (as opposed to decreasing the amount of pixels and shrinking the resolution), but only on the one small block of its screen above the camera sensor.
Can you notice it? Yes, a little. Even just seeing it on YouTube, you can make out a slight difference in brightness in one tiny part of the screen (it’s dimmer). But it also seems like the sort of imperfection where, if you weren’t actively looking for it, you might not see it at all.
So will it offer the same image quality as Xiaomi’s normal front-facing camera? The camera is in essence shooting through the equivalent of a screen door, after all, so it can’t possibly be capturing as clear of a source image as a typical camera. However, Xiaomi claims the image quality will be equivalent to options on the market today, thanks to some algorithmic fixes to the image after it’s captured. Both Google and Apple rely on such artificial intelligence to improve their photos, so this idea is less crazy than it may sound.
Xiaomi promises that the camera will go on the market next year. And it’s easy to imagine other smartphone companies copying the approach, because the smartphone industry uses a largely shared supply chain of core components, and there’s a well-documented history of companies shamelessly duplicating each other’s features.
Longer term, this sort of technology could solve another lingering problem: the lack of true eye contact in Facetime and Zoom (a problem so dire that Apple will actually edit your pupils to fake the effect for you). With a camera placed under the middle of the screen, you could look right into someone else’s eyes, and they could look right into yours. As we recently detailed, eye contact is not just some polite social construct. It’s an essential component of communication that the human body recognizes and reacts to at its biological core.
Xiaomi’s camera is still in the upper left corner of the screen, meaning that it’s unlikely to solve the eye contact problem in this generation. But it’s easy to imagine how the camera might appear in subsequent generations or with other manufacturers. That front camera is not going to be visible forever. And the world of communication may actually be a little bit better for it.