I find it surreal to think that a company can be one of the top five smartphone vendors in the world while selling the overwhelming majority of its phones within just one country. But that’s Oppo and that’s the grand scale of the Chinese mobile market. For Mobile World Congress 2017, Oppo decided to announce not a new phone, but a new camera technology called 5X Dual Camera Zoom. I got to try it out at the show, and I must say it’s kind of awesome.
Oppo has taken the biggest challenge of smartphone cameras, which is their inability to provide optical zoom while keeping the device to a slim profile, and thought sideways about it. The new system has one traditional camera sensor and one that’s been pivoted 90 degrees so that it doesn’t face the back of the phone but looks to the side instead. Then there’s a series of lenses to focus the light onto that sensor, which arrives into the phone and is pointed at the sensor via a mirror, or prism. Basically, it works just like a periscope.
Oppo is making use of the width of the device to accommodate an optical zoom — real zoom, as opposed to digital cropping and enhancement — that would be impossible in a traditional mobile camera design. Not only that, both the prism and the lens array feature optical stabilization, which is to say they move around in minuscule steps in order to offset any camera shake. The prism can adjust its angle in increments of 0.0025 degrees, which is as impressive a precision number as you’re likely to hear at MWC. Stabilization is even more important when you’re using zoom on a camera, because in those circumstances even the smallest bits of vibration and shake can lead to blurry photos.
Oppo showed its 5x zoom system was robust and reliable enough to take sharp handheld shots at its fullest extension, and my time testing the company’s prototypes on the MWC floor confirmed it. I’m not sure I’m psyched about the quality of the sensor or image processing within this system, but taking the new optics setup just by itself, Oppo has a definite winner on its hands. It is legitimate optical 5x zoom with little in the way of physical compromise for the device. The dummy prototypes at Oppo’s exhibition area were large, but the company says the 5x zoom system can be fitted into leaner and prettier devices.
The camera module requires only 5.7mm of height, so even slim 7mm smartphones should theoretically be able to accommodate it. It’s worth noting that while Oppo’s only showing off prototypes for now, the technology itself is ready and we should probably expect to see it in at least one of the company’s phones before the year’s through.
It will certainly add to an extremely competitive marketplace for Android cameraphones, what with LG and Huawei both upgrading their dual-camera systems at MWC (with the G6 and P10, respectively), Sony introducing the Xperia XZ Premium with intense 960fps slow motion, and Samsung set to launch its latest and greatest Galaxy S at the end of this month.
Alas, with Oppo’s focus still firmly fixed on its native China, we might not all have access to the full breadth of choice, but it’s good to know technology like this exists. Oppo is filing for more than 50 patents in relation to its periscope-style camera, but let’s be honest: if it works out well and people like it, the thing will be copied all over the world before the next Mobile World Congress rolls around.
Photography by Vlad Savov