In 2002 I took my first picture using a phone. I used the Sony Ericsson T68 which required a camera accessory be plugged into the bottom, and the picture quality was not great. It was, however, the start of a primary communication device converging with photography. 2002 was also the same year the word selfie started to take shape in popular culture.
By 2006, phones with integrated rear cameras were in demand. The number of people taking pictures of themselves exploded. The most common selfie was usually in front of a mirror which gave birth to the bathroom mirror selfie. Early adopters began screaming for manufactures to make it easier to take selfies.
Good early attempts at a selfie camera were made, such as with the Kyocera VP-210. However, selfies really took off in 2010 when Apple launched the iPhone with a front-facing camera. By 2016, estimates show that 93 million selfies were being taken every day. From then on, a smartphone could not reach meaningful sales success without a front-facing camera.
The use of mobile apps and services grew alongside the popularization of selfies. These trends drove the need for larger smartphone displays. As such, many manufacturers have achieved at least a 90 percent screen-to-body ratio (meaning the front of the phone is primarily comprised of the display). Improving ratios year-over-year required creativity including the much-debated notched display and the less practical pop-up camera.
Today, ZTE launched the Axon 20 5G, the first smartphone with an under-display camera, achieving the highest screen-to-body ratio yet. The past decade of innovation makes the evolution seem like a no-brainer. The reality is that many technical breakthroughs had to be achieved for a camera to function under the display and for the display to work properly.
A smartphone display is made up of multiple panels – one panel displays visual elements, another captures touch and motion, a glass screen protects the panels, and so forth. Light must still reach a camera lens placed under these layers without compromising photo quality or the continuity of the viewing experience. Achieving such a feat requires significant calibration, special materials, and new algorithms.
We expect under-display camera technology will continue to grow in popularity with increased desire for the largest usable and viewable space possible. Over the next decade, smartphones will inch towards a 100 percent screen-to-body ratio with more innovation in the same vein to follow.