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Apple's magnetic solution for adding lenses to iPhone camera


Two patents, discovered by AppleInsider, show how Apple might allow users to expand the photographic capabilities of their iPhones. One describes a removable 'back panel' which contains different camera options, and another (slightly more plausible in the near-term) details how users might be able to attach 'modules' to their phones' camera lenses to provide different lens options. 

This latter patent (8,639,106) is called 'Magnetic add-on lenses with alignment ridge' and describes a means of attaching accessory lenses to future iPhone models using nothing more than magnetic attraction. Magnets would keep the module fixed to the phone, while an 'alignment ridge' would keep the lens centered. 

This image, from Apple's patent shows a 'detachable lens' mounted on a smartphone which includes a neat design for funneling light from the phone's flash (204) around the periphery of the lens' inner casing to illuminate a diffuser (806) creating a 'ring light' effect.

Image: USPTO

Apple has a long history of exploiting magnets for quick and easy attachment, and has used them among other things to replace latches in the closure devices for laptop screens, 'MagSafe' AC power connections and in the various 'Smart' covers available for its line of iPad tablet computers. Much more reliable than mechanical connectors for frequent use, magnets 'just work'. 

Patent 8,639,106 also offers some details on the possible 'camera modules' which might be attached to a future iPhone, including the tantalizing possibility that they might contain a 'ring light and 'multiple lens elements' including 'at least one moving element'. This element could be  moved by a 'voice coil motor' to provide 'various optical functions such as autofocus, lens zoom, anti-shake, or a combination of such functions'.

These images from Apple's patent show a multi-element lens attachment which uses a periscopic design to maintain a low profile when attached to a smartphone. Some compact cameras use similar designs in order to incorporate zoom lenses in ultra-slim form factors.

Image: USPTO

The patent also mentions an option for a periscopic low-profile multi-element lens design for 'lenses that require a long optical path and would otherwise project a substantial distance from the compact device'.

Although this all sounds very interesting, it's important to remember that like all similar companies Apple files many more patents ever year than it releases new products. Still though - we can dream. What do you think? Would you be interested in a magnetically attached 'camera module' for the iPhone? Let us know in the comments. 


Total comments: 32

Isn't there a magnetic ring already on the Nexus 5?
I think it predates this patent...

Edited 41 seconds after posting
Anderson Craig

An interesting idea if you wish to make photos for fun, because I guess even in the next 10 years the smartphones will can't make photos as a real camera... doesn't matter what we attach to him, it's a phone :).


This is very cool. I wish something like this would be available for my Sony RX100.


And how that would work in real life, since now Apple recommends to use a case with the iPhone?


- Remove case
- Easily attach the add-on
- Shoot
- Easily remove the add-on
- Replace the case back

doesn't strike me as particularly user-friendly.

Alternative: Apple, go back to the old proven iPhone design! No more sharp edges! No more broken back glass! One could even hold the phone any way they like! And the magnetic add-on would work better too.


I had that on my Fuji F10 for years, an accessory that is a magnetic circle with a ridge to attach wide-angle adapter on the camera.

Patent troll!


Why not just buy a camera and a pack to carry them in?

Edited 31 seconds after posting

Nope, won't by that


Yes, I would buy something like that.

1 upvote

If you want to be serious in photographic business, build a real camera that doesn't need lousy accesories. Why would I waste money on a phone cam with mediocre sensor and capabilities and spend hundred+ to make it half-decent camera.


The "real" camera tech still can't be made thinner than 10mm.

Gluing the smartphone to RX100 would probably produce the best result currently possible. :)


With 100+ billions in their reserves...and this is what they come up with? Apple seriously is no longer the leader in innovation. People just buying Apple products cause of the brand name.

Edited 2 times; latest 3 minutes since posting

Go ahead, pretend this is Apple's biggest invention for the year, rather than just a small, smart piece of the puzzle.

I doubt they had to put much engineering resources into it, yet it could turn out to be very useful.


Are they trying to sneak in a patent for this:


You mean Sony?


I thought this idea was already being developed through crowdfunding. Maybe its the same individuals. If not there could be one helluva legal battle coming up.

1 upvote

There's no battle when one party is a giant and other just a new kid on the block. That is how apple plays anyways.


Can you elaborate perhaps with an example?


The periscopic lens is really interesting, but it would be a lot cooler if they built that *inside* the phone instead of as an awkward clip-on. Maybe if they make these rumored 5"+ iPhones, there would be more space for it.


most rugged cameras and some sony slim models already have such design embedded, so the apple trick is to remove it from the camera/phone to get a patent (THAT MUST NOT BE RECOGNIZED AS IT BASED ON PREVIOUS DESIGNS)


All of these "clip-on" gadgets are a compromise. Why won't Apple simply make a digital camera first that also happens to be a smartphone second, as an OPTION to the iPhone device we use now? Then they'd once and for all beat Canon and Nikon at their own game since those two are not particularly cutting-edge with connectivity...

1 upvote

A key reason for Apple's stratospheric profitability is their iron discipline in keeping their SKU list short. You can easily lay out all of their current products on a largish executive desk--let's see any other $60B+ manufacturer claim that! They won't change that strategy just to take over the rather unattractive point-and-shoot segment from Canikon.

Now, the DSLR segment is something else, and this is their baby step toward attacking that market.



If Apple fans are already unbearable with a phone that takes decent pictures ... imagine what it will be with a camera made ​​by Apple!!!!

By (unknown member) (Jan 29, 2014)

Funny, I usually don't hear Apple fans being insufferable jerks, but there certainly are tons of people who claim that they are and, in the process, only succeeding in being insufferable jerks themselves.


What I find "unbearable" is commenters who attack others just because of the product choices they make. Why call someone names just because you prefer a different product?


Because you know like….Apple are like really crap and people only buy them because their Apple and yeah…like they're really bad and they're like lemmings and they all just are like really bad and…Apple are really terrible and anyway everyone says so. So there. Apple.


A better idea, I agree!

1 upvote

Third parties already do this magnetic thing, to attach wide angle lenses for example. I have one.

Barney Britton

Me too. Picked up cheap in Japan. It's not terribly effective though!


I think if you build support into the device in the first place, it works better than an add-on that's an afterthought.


The flash aspect is an interesting wrinkle, though 3rd party magnetically attachable/detachable lenses already exist for iPhones.


Great idea. I'd be in - if the image quality was there and the cost reasonable. My experience with Apple suggests the former is more likely...

1 upvote
Wild Shooter

Love it, been waiting awhile, makes sense, but will they make it?

Total comments: 32
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