Is Canon’s 3D Lens Patent Something That the Industry Needs Now?

3D lenses and cameras sound intriguing, but how relevant are they to consumer photography?

Looking into the patents registered by camera manufacturers can be a double-edged sword. On one side, you have the excitement and hope of an upcoming product release. On the other, complete confusion over why a company would file a patent for something which isn’t in demand. Patents also aren’t a strong indicator of release dates and more often than not, a patent remains in limbo forever. Canon’s latest patent for a 3D lens system has me a little confused

3D stereoscopic film cameras have been around for decades. There have also been a few digital ones like Fuji’s Finepix W1 and Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-3D1, but possibly none yet with a Full-Frame sensor. Nikon has had 3D patents in the past, but those were to create 3D images from a single 2D image. Canon might be hoping to pioneer 3D Full-Frame imaging with the registration of this patent, filed some weeks ago

What Does the Patent Say?

The patent for a 3D lens for Canon was first spotted by the folks at Hi Lows Note. Patent application P2021-51282A (Japan) details the requirement of a design for a “stereoscopic lens device capable of obtaining a natural three-dimensional effect by appropriately setting a baseline length” (translated from the original Japanese). What’s interestingly though is the lens design, with each lens appearing to house two mirrors. The internal mirrors appear to be added to produce both image circles inside one Full-Frame sensor. And there is sufficient distance between the two front elements to provide a proper stereoscopic 3D effect.

L1 in the diagram below is the distance between the two optical axes of the first lens element, while L2 is the distance between the two axes of the innermost lens elements.

Screenshot from the patent page

As the patent states, “The average distance between the human eyes is about 60 to 65 mm, and in order to obtain a more natural three-dimensional effect similar to that of the human eye, it is necessary to use an optical system having the same baseline length. However, to realize this, it is necessary to make the aperture of the lens mount larger than 60 mm, so that the lens device and the image pickup device become large” (translated).

The patent notes also state that this system is designed to work on a 24x36mm sensor. Section 0031 further says that the focus ring (205) can be configured to adjust focus, aperture, or zoom. Canon’s DSLR system of lenses does not have such a configurable option. Thus it would indicate that this 3D patent is designed for their current mirrorless RF Full-Frame mount. Keeping the lens compatible with existing bodies is a good idea, maximizing the sensor area for the image circles being projected onto it. Add AI into the equation somewhere, and it might be a unique product that everyone takes notice of in the future.

Screenshot from the patent page

Do We Really Need a 3D Lens and Camera System Outside of Hollywood?

My personal experiences with 3D haven’t been too memorable. Testing the stereoscopic Nintendo Virtual Boy as a teen at a gaming fair in 1996 gave me a disorienting headache. The last 3D movie I saw was the nearly two hour-long ‘The Adventures of Tintin’. I remember walking out of the cinema wishing I’d just gone for the 2D version instead. It wasn’t just that I didn’t find the format interesting (how often can you be amused by things on-screen flying directly at you). I couldn’t fathom why others would bother putting their eyes through such a strenuous experience for hours. 3D TV sets haven’t been very different. I still maintain that 3D TVs wouldn’t have made it into people’s homes over the past decade if not for James Cameron’s idea to film Avatar in this format. Most mainstream TV manufacturers have discontinued the production of such units, which makes you wonder if there really is a future for consumer 3D technology.

My personal feelings on 3D tech aside, you don’t hear of big-name photographers talking about it or of consumer camera brands saying it’s something on their radar. It might make a comeback someday when VR headset manufacturers make affordable and comfortable devices for long-usage periods.

My personal experiences with 3D haven’t been too memorable. Testing the stereoscopic Nintendo Virtual Boy as a teen at a gaming fair in 1996 gave me a disorienting headache.

Possible Practical Uses

I don’t see the possibility of prosumers filming 3D short films or YouTube content with such a system today. The days of people browsing 3D videos on YouTube with their phones coupled to a bulky Google Cardboard viewer on their eyes are past us. Would photography enthusiasts buy a 3D camera if most people couldn’t view the images in the best way they’re meant to be seen?

While 3D has lost its foothold over the past five years or so, the popularity for 360 videos has surged. Canon should consider releasing this 3D lens at a prosumer price level. This would be good news for real estate photographers. Producing 3D 360 walk-throughs using such a lens would appeal to developers looking for new ways to showcase their properties. Existing professional camera systems, such as the Matterport, are bulky and hugely expensive. Yes, it’s a niche market, but a 3D lens utilizing the capabilities of a Full-Frame sensor in the relatively compact size of existing RF bodies would be appealing and cost-effective. It could be a very interesting addition to photographers already shooting 360 content.

Good Idea, But for When?

Patents are usually a good guideline of the direction in which the photography industry is heading. I get that Canon patented this to stay ahead of the competition, if and when 3D might become popular again. I just don’t see it happening anytime in the foreseeable future because there isn’t a current demand for it. Software is already capable of creating virtual 3D images from images taken from 2D cameras. The necessary supporting technology to display 3D images and videos isn’t widespread either. Whether such a system could compete with Intel’s Realsense camera or the Astra Embedded S is a question for the future. Canon has already got more than a handful of patents in the pipeline, so this one might just be on the back burner for now.

Feroz Khan

Never seen without a camera (or far from one), Feroz picked up the art of photography from his grandfather at a very early age (at the expense of destroying a camera or two of his). Specializing in sports photography and videography for corporate short films, when he’s not discussing or planning his next photoshoot, he can usually be found staying up to date on aviation tech or watching movies from the 70s era with a cup of karak chai.