- Some reports have said that a banner feature for iPhone X called Animoji doesn’t require the phone’s new front-facing depth camera.
- This would suggest that Animoji could be ported to older iPhones.
- However, Apple says that Animoji uses the iPhone X depth camera for precise face tracking.
One of the main selling points for Apple’s $999 iPhone X is called Animoji, a nifty feature that allows users to essentially inhabit a cartoon cat, robot, or piece of poop to say (or sing) short messages.
The feature is only available on the iPhone X – not on older iPhones. That’s because Apple’s recently-released top-of-the-line iPhone comes with a special 3D front-facing camera that’s required for making Animojis.
However, several reports, most visibly from top gadget YouTuber Marques Brownlee, said on Wednesday that Animoji could in fact work on older iPhones as well. These reports pointed to tests they conducted, which seemed to show that the camera apparently wasn’t using depth data.
Therefore, the claim went, Apple could port Animoji to older iPhones, which only have conventional front-facing cameras. More importantly, the subtext of these reports suggested that there was no technical reason for Apple to have limited Animoji to the X and forcing consumers who wanted the feature to buy the company’s most expensive phone.
But those reports were wrong: Apple says that it uses information from the True Depth camera to help track facial movements for Animoji, specifically from the system’s infrared laser and dot projector components, and if Apple were to port the feature to older phones, there would be a big drop in face-tracking quality.
The kerfuffle was reminiscent of a controversy in 2011 when Apple initially restricted Siri to the iPhone 4S as a banner feature for the device, although it would run on older iPhones.
Update: Talked to Apple about Animoji: It does actually use data from the IR and depth sensors for better accuracy. Apple told me they wouldn’t want a worse Animoji experience for other iPhones without those sensors. Props to @reneritchie for this article: https://t.co/Yml7SQ54Eq
— Marques Brownlee (@MKBHD) November 15, 2017
There’s also a logical explanation for why Animoji can sometimes seem like it’s working normally even when parts of the True Depth camera are covered up, as happened in tests run by Gizmodo.
Apple’s True Depth camera doesn’t take a 3D reading continuously. Instead, it takes measurements at set intervals, or what’s called a sampling rate, although Apple didn’t comment on the specific sampling rate. When Animoji seem to remain responsive even after the IR sensor is covered, the system could still be going off of an earlier reading.
The first depth reading is taken when the user starts Animoji. So if you cover up the IR system – the left side of the notch – before booting Animoji up, performance will be degraded.
I did some unscientific testing using my own iPhone X. When I covered the left side of the True Depth camera, sometimes it worked normally, but at other times it gave my Animoji a wandering eye, like this:
So you can put to rest any conspiracy theories about artificial exclusivity for Animoji. But the the short-lived controversy may have inspired a new form of purposefully flawed Animoji – with wandering eyes and other charming defects – that users can easily create by covering the phone’s sensor.