Apple has been awarded a patent today that describes a system for taking images that can change focus after their capture (via AppleInsider). The tech might sound familiar: Startup Lytro created its light-field camera hardware to accomplish the same thing. Apple's system is likewise based on what's called “plenoptic” tech to deliver results which can be altered in terms of what is and isn't in focus on a computer or device after the fact.
Apple's patent even cites the design used by Lytro as prior art, but goes on to describe a number of differences in its own invention that would greatly improve image quality and the maximum possible resolution of the pictures it takes. Apple's design uses a movable adapter between the actual image sensor and the external lens element, which could enable it to switch between two different modes – one for high-resolution standard photos, like the iPhone takes now, and one for lower-resolution refocusable pics, like the Lytro captures.
The patent was originally filed in 2011, and describes a number of possible implementations, including integration with an iPhone, or as an add-on similar to Sony's QX10 and QX100 digital camera accessories for smartphones.
This kind of tech is likely still a ways out from being included in a shipping iPhone, or even as an accessory, but it's interesting to see Apple working in that direction. Lytro has said in the past that it isn't planning to license the tech out to other manufacturers, but Toshiba has been reportedly working on similar tech aimed specifically at smartphones, and it most definitely will license to other OEMs, meaning there could be an advantage to being first. And it's definitely the type of feature that, like slo-mo video on the iPhone 5s, can really “wow” consumers in product demos.