By the end of 2018, ASUS streamlined its mobile phone strategy to focus on two key groups of consumers: gamers and power users. With this in mind, the company started planning a revolutionary user experience for its new flagship phone: the ZenFone 6.
"What should our latest intelligent ZenFone look like? What distinguishing ZenFone features must it have in its blueprint?" asked ASUS Global technical PR CH. This quest to create a unique phone with ZenFone DNA was the design team’s guiding principle when creating the ZenFone 6.
Eventually, the ASUS R&D team settled on three main objectives for the ZenFone 6:
The first was to get provide the best viewing experience possible – which would involve getting rid of any notch and reducing bezel width
The next was to provide good battery life that users will not worry about charging anymore
The last was to improve the quality of the camera and empower the creativity of photo lovers
Based on these three guiding principles, the ASUS R&D team first determined that ZenFone 6 would have a notch-free, 6.4-inch all-screen display with super thin bezels, (what ASUS calls “NanoEdge”). The phone would be powered by Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line Snapdragon 855 SOC, which is fed by an extremely high capacity 5000mAh battery. However, by fulfilling the first two design principles, how would the new ZenFone provide an excellent main rear camera as well as front camera without sacrificing them or increasing its body size?
Over the past few years, smartphone makers have started providing notchless all-screen-displays by repositioning the front camera through different methods. These include using pop-up cameras that lift out of the phone’s body or slider designs that allow users to push a front camera out from the rear panel. However, such designs have to use a poor-performing front camera due to the size restrictions of the housings that contain them. On the other hand, other makers that chose to retain fixed front cameras on their phones’ front panels and had their front camera resolutions increase to as high as 24 megapixels. Regardless, in both examples, the front camera always have poorer performance compared to main rear camera.
To solve this issue in the ZenFone 6, the ASUS R&D team took inspiration from the flipping viewfinder displays of professional cameras, and designed an automatic, motorized Flip Camera module. When the selfie icon in the camera interface is pressed, this mechanism flips the dual cameras up 180 degrees to face the user, turning it into front-facing cameras. In this way, the ZenFone 6 provides a super-high-resolution front camera without sacrificing the all-screen display and keeping the overall body size of the phone compact.
Motorized Flip Camera Module Allows Users to Take Photos From the Front As Good As From the Rear.
The ZenFone 6 features dual cameras that are housed in an automatic, motorized Flip Camera module. The main camera uses Sony’s flagship 48-megapixel IMX586 sensor, with a large F1.79 aperture and fast 2x1 OCL PDAF (phase-detection autofocus). The secondary camera is a 13-megapixel, 125-degree ultrawide camera. With this Flip Camera system, the ZenFone 6 has become the smartphone with the world’s highest resolution front and rear cameras. The secondary camera in the Flip Camera module also gives the ZenFone 6 the best ultrawide front camera with real-time distortion correction.
With Flip Camera module, users no longer have to compromise image quality when shooting selfies because now, the two high quality cameras are also the front cameras! ASUS senior project manager, W pointed out, “Users want front camera and rear camera to have the same performance level. And ASUS achieves it!”
The ASUS R&D team believes that this automatic Flip Camera is the only solution that address the conflicting demands of keeping the phone’s size compact while providing a –all-screen display, and not compromising the performance of a front camera. This innovative and unique camera module also helps the ZenFone 6 stand out from other flagship smartphones in the market that look like each other. ASUS senior project manager W said, "With the ZenFone 6, we want users to recognize it immediately when they see the Flip Camera. It really gives the phone a strong visual identity and character. "
One Flip Camera Module, Four Revolutionary Features
With the ZenFone 6’s automatic Flip Camera, users enjoy four features to expand their creativity in photo taking. Firstly, they can use the camera’s “free-angle shooting” capability. A short press of the selfie button flips the camera fully open to face the front. However, a long press brings up a slide bar which allows users to control the Flip Camera module to any angle between 0 degrees (fully closed) and 180 degrees (fully open).
This ability to flip the camera to provide various angles of shooting allows users to capture photos from perfect angles and with comfortable positions while still looking at the display to frame the shot – like holding the phone above a crowd with the camera flipped to 90 degrees; or at a low height to shoot children or pets at their eye level.
The second Flip Camera related feature is Auto Panorama. With previous smartphones, users had to move the phone by themselves to shoot a panorama photo. If the user’s hand movement shifted the camera beyond a certain point during the process, the panorama shot would be ruined. To counter this, the ASUS R&D team designed the ZenFone 6’s Flip Camera module with a stepper motor that can shoot panoramic photos by automatically shifting the camera module at a constant speed. This is far more stable and smoother than taking handheld panoramas with conventional smartphones.
Whether it is the frescoes of a cathedral, the entire San Francisco Bridge, or a self-portrait with the Taipei 101 building, or other wide or tall subjects, users can accomplish such panoramic photos easily with the automatic Flip Camera.
The third major feature is the front high-resolution camera. With the ability to flip to face the front, the ZenFone 6’s camera module provides users with the most powerful front camera with Sony’s IMX586 sensor and its incredibly 48-megapixel high resolution in the world. In addition, the camera offers other capabilities not typically found in front cameras including: autofocus and supreme low light capability that allows users to take clear photos anywhere; indoors, outdoors, day or night.
The fourth revolutionary feature of the Flip Camera is its front 13-megapixel ultrawide camera that allows users to shoot ultra-wide angle photos with a field of view of up to 125 degrees to capture more scenery, people, or friends in a selfie.
With all these features, the Flip Camera can intelligently judge its position according to the angle of the camera module and automatically flip photos to the correct orientation to prevent users from taking photos that appear upside down when shooting with the cameras flipped out.
The ASUS R&D team also makes every efforts to integrate the ZenFone 6’s camera flipping capability to work with third-party camera apps. When the camera is activated in supported apps, a floating frame that can adjust the auto Flip Camera’s position will appear in the interface, allowing the user to return to the photo software to take the photo after adjusting the lens angle.
Custom Built Camera Module to Flip Elegantly
In order to make the Flip Camera module light and attractive, the engineers had to overcome many technical design challenges. One of the biggest is the stepper motor of the system. Using a special U-shaped design and pulse signal operation, the stepper motor can achieve extremely stable and high-precision positioning. Though this precision, engineers could design the opening and closing of the module with a variable speed movement that gives the camera flipping action an elegant “dampened” effect. ASUS R&D team, E described the camera module as a sports car, fast but elegant. He further pointed out that if the movement of the camera is stopped when opening or closing for any reason, like if it detects some obstacle, the motor will stop immediately and will not retry again until it is safe to do so. “In order to ensure safety, we use the concept of reflex nerve to do the automatic Flip Camera,” he said.
Another major technical challenge was routing the circuitry of the camera module. Due to the small size of the module, the circuits of the camera had to be very fine. In order to provide signaling for the two cameras, the ASUS team specially manufactured super thin wires, and put 32 individual signal cables into a transmission line with a diameter of only 2mm. ASUS R&D team engineer J said, "The circuitry is so complex that this is the first camera module of any smartphone to use such thin circuit! Even our microprocessor foundry were astounded that we had designed such a compact system.”
To accommodate the innovative design of the auto Flip Camera system, the design team also envisioned over a hundred possible user scenarios to program the Flip Camera’s automatic movement. For example, when users answer a call, the module stops moving if it detects that it is close to an ear. Or if the module has been flipped to the front, the system automatically detects that a selfie is being shot and the strength of the LED flash will be softened so as not to irritate the user's eyes.
To address users’ fears of the camera module being damaged in a fall while it is opened, the camera module has a gravity sensor that can detect if the phone is in freefall. This sensor tells the phone to automatically retract the camera module to a safer position quickly in the case of shorter drops, or fully close if dropped from a greater height of beyond one meter. ASUS R&D team has done several dropping test with different angles in the laboratory, from 1-meter, and 1.25-meter, height, and the results show that ZenFone 6 Flip Camera passes all the tests.
Liquid Metal” Camera Module
To make the ZenFone 6’s Flip Camera module as small, strong and attractive looking as it is, the use of a special material known as an “amorphous alloy”, also commonly known as “liquid metal” had to be used. This was because plastic, stainless steel and other materials typically used in mobile phones could not meet the requirements of the automatic Flip Camera module. The liquid metal used to construct the camera module is four times stronger and 20% lighter than stainless steel, yet the material has high malleability – meaning it can be bent and stretched into different shapes without damage or compromise to its strength. Using liquid metal, the shell of the camera module could be made 0.2mm thin while preserving its structural strength. It would have been impossible to use another material for the camera module. Even if it could, the module would become too heavy to be moved by the motor. In addition to fulfilling the mechanical requirements of the camera module, the liquid metal also allowed designers to make it small and attractive looking.
Referring to the commercialization of liquid metal, it has been used as a golf club and watch since 2003, and it’s firstly used in a small-area SIM tray needle in iPhone. Therefore, ZenFone 6’s camera module is the largest-area camera module of any smartphone ever constructed from liquid metal.
When asked about why other makers have not used liquid metal for such a large component, ASUS project manager W explained that possible reasons included cost - liquid metal is more expensive than aluminum alloy and complexity - liquid metal is extremely difficult to design and work with. He further said, “ASUS R&D team made every efforts to let everyone feel comfortable and sturdy when using the Flip Camera! When thinking of Flip Camera, they’ll think of ASUS!”
In summary, the ZenFone 6 is a flagship phone with a strong focus on power users and photography enthusiasts. It was created to cater to their needs and provide them with a superior experience with design thinking and ultimate craft aesthetics. With its unique combination of a all-screen NanoEdge display, a high capacity 5000mAh battery, and of course, its amazing automatic Flip Camera made of liquid metal and stepper motor and supports impressive photography features, it is a smartphone that truly stands out in defiance among other “ordinary” flagship smartphones.