The second-generation Face ID is (again) a Marvel of technology

System Plus consulting is publishing the 2nd generation Face ID camera report: Apple iPhone 13 Face ID Module . The reverse engineering & costing company and Yole Développement (Yole) combine their expertise to deliver today a snapshot of this report with the major innovations and the underlying market context.

In 2017, the iPhone X brought to the world a new method of user authentication: Face ID. The new embedded hardware was a 3D sensing camera on the phone’s front (selfie) side. Four years later, the Face ID camera is now ubiquitous on the full iPhone lineup and also on the iPad. A new generation of hardware has been fitted to the iPhone 13 which made possible a smaller notch.

The original Apple innovation transformed the 3D sensing camera market. It was far ahead of its time in 2017, and Apple is today the sole significant player to use the approach. Samsung dropped 3D sensing in its S21, Huawei’s mobile handset activities were banned by the US authorities, so despite their heavy involvement, they have disappeared, and LG just shut down its mobile handset activities. Apple is the de facto leading 3D sensing player, having created almost by itself a US$3 billion market at the module level.

According to Yole’s imaging team and as detailed in its 3D imaging & sensing 2021 forecast, this market will grow to US$6.8 billion for mobile alone in 2026.


How good is this 2nd generation 3D sensing camera from Apple?

Put briefly, this is again a marvel of technology in the same vein as the Apple “lidar” of the iPhone 12 Pro.

It is far more compact and optimized than the 1st generation. It combines into a single module what used to be separated into three different parts, the flood emitter, the dot emitter, and the receiver NIR camera.

The baseline distance between the dot emitter and the receiver camera used to be 28mm. Apple has reduced it to 6mm, allowing them to create a single camera module combining the two emitters and the receiver, looking much like the lidar of the iPhone 12 Pro.

The 3D sensing camera module is constructed using high-temperature co-fired ceramics (HTTC), an approach unique to Apple in the world of camera modules. Two plastic lens modules are placed on top – one above the image sensor on one side, and the second above the two VCSEL dies on the other.

Why did Apple transform this camera module?

To bring the size of the notch down by 30% and also to reduce cost. According to System Plus Consulting’s analysis, Apple is saving 50% of the emitter-side cost while keeping the receiving-side the same.

The supply chain has been simplified since the 3D sensing camera is now a single module. The consequence for the suppliers is significant. STMicroelectronics will continue to supply the same CIS for years to come, which is quite good for its bottom line. It’s perhaps nevertheless concerning that they will still mainly produce the front side illuminated image sensors while Sony, its closest competitor in the 3D sensing space, started the mass production of stacked dTof arrays in 2020.

On the other hand, we can only applaud ST’s SOI-based global shutter (GS) design, even four years later. The receiver lens set is also the same design, provided by Genius Electronic Optical.

For Lumentum, the emitter side provides contrasting news. We had already seen the introduction of II-VI VCSELs as a second source for the flood emitter in the past.  This time Lumentum is providing both the flood and dot emitter VCSELs, but their surface has shrunk by 50% overall. The emitter lens set previously provided by ams AG is now supplied by GSEO and has changed from WLO to a more classical 3P injection molded lens set. The Diffractive Optical Element (DOE) has a drastically different diffractive pattern concept but is overall similar in construction to the previous generation.

As before, the final assembly is by LG Innotek, and the sole VCSEL driver is now from Texas Instruments, completing the list of suppliers involved in this module.

So, what could we conclude?

In this updated 3D sensing module, Apple demonstrates once more its industrial design capabilities, implementing radical innovations while still managing risk with down-to-earth simplicity, impressive for a US$275 billion giant!

One thing we now see clearly is that 3D sensing is here to stay and even expand. In a post-COVID world where touchless interaction becomes the new standard and the Metaverse endeavors to become the new frontier, the 2nd generation face ID camera is a giant step forward of the world to come.


Headline image – Courtesy of System Plus Consulting, 2021

About the authors

Peter Bonnano

Peter Bonanno, Ph.D., is a Technology & Cost Analyst, Imaging, at System Plus Consulting, part of Yole Développement.

With solid expertise in the field of imaging, optical sensors and optoelectronics, Peter performs reverse engineering & costing analyses as well as custom projects.

He collaborates closely with the laboratory team, and together they create an analysis plan to reveal the device structures, technologies, and manufacturing steps used by leading imaging & photonics companies.

At the same time, Peter runs a technology watch to identify the latest innovations and related manufacturing processes. His aim is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the evolution of technologies and identify the strategies of the leading manufacturers. His technology watch is supported by his participation in numerous trade shows and conferences.

Peter previously worked at the US Naval Research Laboratory, where he developed tools for time-resolved 2-photon photoluminescence and UV defect imaging. He has also authored many scientific papers and articles.

Peter holds a Ph.D. in Electrical & Computer Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, Georgia, USA) and a B.S. in Computer Science and Applied Physics (double major) from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (Newark, New Jersey, USA).

Pierre Cambou, Yole Développement

Pierre Cambou MSc, MBA, is a Principal analyst in the Photonics and Sensing Division at Yole Développement (Yole).

Pierre’s mission is dedicated to imaging-related activities by providing market & technology analyses along with strategy consulting services to semiconductor companies.

At Yole, Pierre is responsible for the CIS Quarterly Market Monitor while he has authored more than 15 Yole Market & Technology reports. Known as an expert in the imaging industry, he is regularly interviewed and quoted by leading international media.

Previously, Pierre held several positions at Thomson TCS, which became Atmel Grenoble (France) in 2001 and e2v Semiconductors (France) in 2006. In 2012, he founded Vence Innovation, later renamed Irlynx (France), to bring to market an infrared sensor technology for smart environments.

Pierre has an Engineering degree from Université de Technologie de Compiègne (France) and a Master of Science from Virginia Tech. (VA, USA). Pierre also graduated with an MBA from Grenoble Ecole de Management (France).

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