Intel (INTC 0.62%) recently unveiled its RealSense depth-sensing cameras at CES 2015. The cameras sport three lenses -- a standard 2D camera for photos and videos, an infrared camera, and an infrared laser projector. The infrared lenses let the RealSense camera "see" the distance between objects and split them into background layers and 3D data.
Front-facing RealSense cameras, which can capture gestures more accurately for video conferencing and gaming, are scheduled to initially launch on several PCs. Rear-facing cameras, which can scan objects in 3D, should arrive on tablets later this year.
The RealSense camera does not directly complement Intel's core chip business for PCs and servers, but it could nonetheless strengthen its fledgling mobile business, which posted an operating loss of $4.2 billion in fiscal 2014. That big loss was caused by Intel giving its mobile partners -- including Asus, Lenovo, and Dell -- steep discounts on Atom chips, co-marketing deals, and financial assistance to redesign logic boards. Intel has declared it will eventually phase out those subsidies, but those allies could end up switching back to ARM Holdings-licensed processors when that occurs.
Therefore, let's look at three surprising ways RealSense cameras could help Intel secure more mobile partners.
1. 3D scanning from tablets and smartphones
Since RealSense cameras can scan objects in 3D, they can streamline the production of templates for 3D printers. At CES, Intel presenters scanned participants' torsos with a prototype tablet equipped with a RealSense camera, then transferred the data to a 3D printer to produce decorative paperweights.
Research firm Canalys expects the 3D printing market to grow from $3.8 billion in 2014 to $16.2 billion in 2018. As that market grows, so will demand for mobile devices that can scan objects and create 3D templates on the fly.
Asus, Lenovo, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard all plan to install RealSense cameras on their new PCs, laptops, and tablets. The pairing of more RealSense cameras with Intel processors in tablets (and possibly smartphones) could lift demand for the company's mobile chips.
2. Wiping out the DSLR market
Smartphones have already cannibalized sales of point-and-shoot digital cameras, but RealSense could impact sales of higher-end DSLR cameras as well.
Until now, most smartphone cameras have only emulated DSLR features with software tricks. But a "snapshot" version of the RealSense camera -- which will debut on Dell's Venue 8 7000 tablet later this year -- lets users accurately change the focus within a photo after taking it.
This means a photographer with a RealSense device could quickly snap a picture, then adjust the foreground and background focus later. By comparison, a DSLR user -- struggling to focus the lens before taking the photo -- could miss a fast-moving subject.
Therefore, depth-sensing cameras could represent the next evolution for smartphone and tablet cameras. Aggressively bundling these cameras with Atom processors could encourage more mobile manufacturers to switch from ARM-licensed products to Intel chips.
3. Virtual reality gaming
The virtual reality market is a fledgling one, but companies like Facebook believe it could represent the future of mobile gaming. In December, Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) and Oculus launched the Gear VR, a headset that converts the Galaxy Note 4 phablet into a VR gaming device.
The Gear VR, like the Oculus Rift, detects head movements but usually requires an external controller. But adding a RealSense camera, which detects individual finger movements, to the Oculus Rift allows gamers to use their hands inside the virtual world. If VR headsets for smartphones such as the Gear VR gain mainstream popularity, demand for rear-facing depth-sensing cameras could soar.
Research firm KZero forecasts that the global VR market -- which is worth practically nothing today -- could generate $8.4 billion in hardware sales and $7.7 billion in software sales by 2018. If that forecast is accurate, RealSense cameras could help Intel establish a strong early foothold in that market.
Not a magic bullet
RealSense cameras are a fascinating new technology that could theoretically boost sales of Intel's mobile chips via bundling tactics, but they certainly are not a magic bullet to take down ARM-based devices.
Intel isn't the only manufacturer of depth-sensing cameras -- which means hordes of smaller competitors could eventually commoditize the market. This means ARM-based mobile devices could easily gain similar depth-sensing features without signing on with Intel.
However, RealSense cameras could help Intel raise interest in its mobile business again, which would at least represent some progress for the struggling segment.