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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

WWDC 2022: All about Continuity Camera

A surprising part of Apple’s macOS Ventura announcement on Monday was Continuity Camera, which lets Macs use the iPhone camera as a webcam. It’s not surprising in that it’s a feature that’s been used by apps like Camo to take advantage of the fact that most Mac users have a really, really good camera with them at all times. But it’s a tacit admission by Apple that the cameras it puts on Macs just aren’t as good, too. In the end, the pride over the quality of the iPhone camera seems to have overridden the judgments about Mac webcam hardware.

And it’s all for the better. People can complain that this is another example of Sherlocking, in which Apple takes a feature pioneered by outside developers and rolls it into the system. And, yes, it is that. Sherlocking has a couple of interesting aspects that aren’t as widely known, though: First, there’s usually room left behind after a “Sherlocking,” and there are several features in Camo that Apple isn’t bothering to replicate with Continuity Camera. Second, the platform owner has powers far beyond those of third-party app developers—and with Continuity Camera, it shows. There’s no app to launch, nothing to configure, no awkward attempt to mount a phone while not touching the wrong button or the wrong place on the screen. When you bring an iPhone (running iOS 16) close to a Mac (running macOS Ventura), the phone’s rear camera can be used as a video source by the Mac. That’s pretty great.

Continuity Camera can be used either wired or wirelessly on any iPhone XR or later. You can plug in a phone to a Mac, or just have it in range with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi turned on on both devices.

As a part of introducing Continuity Camera, Apple is also introducing the concept of a System Camera to macOS. Your System Camera is the one that macOS thinks is the camera that should be used by default—essentially, macOS is choosing a camera for you automatically. This is relevant because it enables auto-switching from a Mac’s standard webcam to Continuity Camera when an iPhone is ready and willing to serve.

There are actually two different states that a Continuity Camera can be in. The first is when the iPhone is detected nearby and recognized by the Mac as offering Continuity Camera. At that point, the iPhone becomes available as a video source that you can select and use. Think of an instance where you switch during a Zoom call from your webcam to your iPhone, so you can show a close-up of something on your desk or on a whiteboard.

The second state is when your Mac decides that the Continuity Camera is ready to be used as the default webcam. This only happens when the iPhone is in a particular orientation, with the camera perpendicular to the table and with the iPhone not shaking. In essence, the iPhone is automatically detecting when it’s been mounted on or behind your screen and is now ready to be used as a webcam. That’s when the switch of the System Camera occurs. (Apps will need to be updated to recognize the System Camera state, but users should be able to switch between their preferred video sources, regardless.)

As Apple showed on Monday, Continuity Camera has a bunch of extra features that will be familiar from other products. It optionally can be set in Center Stage mode (on iPhone 11 and later), which automatically pans and zooms in order to keep people in frame. If you use Center Stage, then Continuity Camera will use the iPhone’s ultrawide camera in order to have the widest possible coverage area. (If you don’t use Center Stage, it’ll use the iPhone’s wide camera instead.) Studio Light, an effect that lightens the subject in the foreground and darkens the background (on iPhone 12 and later), and Portrait Mode, which fuzzes out the background (on iPhone XR and SE 2 and later), can both be independently toggled on and off, all via Control Center.

Then there’s Desk View, which provides an image of what’s on your desk, as if it was being viewed from an overhead camera. Desk View always uses the ultrawide camera because it needs that wide field of view to look all the way down to your desk surface. (If you’re not using Center Stage, your face will be captured by the wide camera while Desk View is captured by the ultrawide. If you are using Center Stage, then both views will be calculated simultaneously from the ultrawide camera.)

Desk View is an odd one. It’s actually an app called Desk View that displays that faux overhead view, calculated by rotating and de-skewing the output from the ultrawide camera. The reason it’s an app is so that you can use screen-sharing mode in video conferencing apps to capture the Desk View window and share it when you want to. (There’s also a Desk View API that means that video apps should be able to use Desk View as a camera directly if they want to.)

For me, the most exciting part of Continuity Camera might be that it finally prompts someone—apparently Belkin—to make a bunch of different mounts to attach iPhones to the top of desktop and laptop displays. I’ve been using Camo and my iPhone to make a better webcam for nearly two years now, and I’ve never found a mount that I’ve been happy with. Come this fall, it looks like that won’t be a problem anymore.

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