The front camera on your iPhone has a secret weapon. The same tool as everyone else best iPhones use to make Memoji can also be used as a night vision camera for video chats. Even when the camera looks completely dark, you can activate Memoji and the caller will see you perfectly…albeit with the filter on. If you know how to set up Memojiyou now have night vision.
The front-facing camera on the iPhone, ever since iPhone X with a forehead notch, contains what Apple calls a TrueDepth sensor. The TrueDepth sensor is very similar to the technology used by Microsoft Xbox Kinect. It involves an infrared projector and a corresponding sensor camera.
The iPhone TrueDepth module sprays a series of invisible dots all over your face. If you wear glasses that are able to see into the infrared spectrum, you can actually see the dots and the pattern they make. The camera on the iPhone can detect and read the dots, and it analyzes the pattern to create a 3D model of your face and head.
Our friends at PatentlyApple have images from Apple’s TrueDepth technology patent, and you can see in the diagram what the IR dot projection looks like.
This is how face unlock works on iPhone. It uses the infrared camera to map your face and it matches this map with the original face unlock map it created. This is why a photo of your face shouldn’t fool your iPhone. It can detect depth, so a 2D image shouldn’t work.
Because the camera is infrared, it works in total darkness. In a black room, the iPhone’s front-facing camera won’t be able to take a good photo, but it will be able to turn your head into a unicorn or a koala bear or a talking bunch of… well, you can play around with AR emoji and Memoji to find out for yourself.
How to get night vision in FaceTime using TrueDepth
To use TrueDepth for night vision in a FaceTime call, first start the call. The caller will have full screen and the camera view will appear in a smaller window. Tap the smaller window.
Tap the star icon at the bottom left of the smaller window. This opens the filter menu. You can choose to become a Memoji by tapping the first icon. If you haven’t created your own Memoji, now is a good time.
For a more natural look, tap the icon with green, red and blue circles to open the photo filters. The “Watercolor” filter uses the TrueDepth camera. Even in a completely dark room, you’ll be able to share a watercolor version of yourself, in color or black and white.
Will this work on my phone?
The TrueDepth camera is unique to Apple. If you have an iPhone with a notch, from iPhone X and later, or a iPhone 14 Pro or 14 Pro Max, you have the TrueDepth sensor. Your results will definitely vary depending on how new your iPhone model is.
We tried this night vision hack with an iPhone 14 Pro and an older one iPhone 11. The iPhone 14 Pro worked great and produced the screenshots you see in this story. The iPhone 11 could barely see our face, but even just a tiny bit of lighting helped and resulted in a successful filter.
Most other phone companies that offer a face unlock feature use simpler image recognition. The fancier versions of this feature will see if your face is moving, or if your eyes are blinking, to make sure the camera is seeing a real person and not a photograph.
Apple is unique in its use of infrared among the major phone manufacturers. Huawei and Xiaomi have used similar technology on phones, but Samsung and Google use a more basic camera setup for face unlock on phones that Galaxy S22 and Pixel 7.
More secrets in the iPhone camera
It would be cool to see Apple embrace this technology further and offer filters that provide a more accurate picture of us in the dark, especially for video chat. There’s also another secret weapon hiding on the back of the phone that could have similar implications.
The rear camera on the iPhone uses one LiDAR scanner, essentially a version of RADAR technology. Using this so-called “time of flight” data, the iPhone can create a virtual map of your surroundings.
So far, Apple has used these features almost exclusively for augmented reality (AR) in games and apps. It also helps the cameras with autofocus. The TrueDepth sensor shows us that there is a lot more potential for the IR technology on board, and we imagine that Apple has only just begun to unlock the LiDAR capabilities on the iPhone.
Future Apple AR products, especially one Apple glasses portable device, will likely rely heavily on both of these technologies. It will be interesting to see, literally, how they do in the dark.