Apple’s sensor strategy: GaAs proximity sensors take the spotlight again

Yole Group’s analysts’ foresight was on point prior to the iPhone 14 Pro launch in 2022: The smartphone giant Apple chose InP in under-display proximity sensors, as also revealed by Yole SystemPlus’ teardown. However, this year things are set to change…

Ali Jaffal and Ezgi Dogmus, part of the compound semiconductor & Emerging substrates team at Yole Intelligence, invite you today to deep dive into photonic technologies, with a particular focus on compound semiconductors. Both experts give a relevant snapshot of the technologies used in smartphones and technology choices made by the leading smartphone manufacturer, Apple.

Enjoy reading this new article and stay tuned next week with Apple’s announcement!

Yole Intelligence and Yole SystemPlus are part of Yole Group. This analysis has been extracted from the following products: InP 2022SWIR 2023VCSELs 2022 (2023 edition coming soon – More info.) – 3D Imaging & Sensing 2023Status of Compound Semiconductor Industry 2022 (2024 edition coming soon – More info.)

In a remarkable twist, the GaAs photonics industry has orchestrated another “Remontada” for GaAs VCSELs, this time scoring big with Apple’s upcoming iPhone 15 models. The familiar pill-shaped design, akin to the iPhone 14 Pro models, will make its return. However, the star of the show will be the 940 nm GaAs-based proximity sensor, replacing the 1380 nm under-display InP-based sensor featured in the iPhone 14 Pro models. According to the most recent Photonics GaAs and InP Compound Semiconductor Market Monitor from Yole intelligence, part of Yole Group, Apple’s cautious approach towards deploying under-display InP lasers and sensors seems to be rooted in cost-effectiveness, potential supply chain considerations, and complicated integration of InP edge-emitting-lasers below OLED, making GaAs a more attractive choice. The “new” GaAs VCSELs will enable compact sensors with a smaller form factor, fitting within the pill-shaped enclosure.

In addition to the proximity sensors, several GaAs device players have also demonstrated new multimode VCSELs with stable polarization, ultracompact dynamic illumination, and sensing with back-side emitting VCSEL arrays to support increased demand for advanced VCSEL sources in consumer electronics. These new lasers could improve the quality of the overall sensing system, thus enabling a positive user experience and power saving. In addition, they support further miniaturization demands in smartphone applications by combining the dot projector and flood illuminator in one chip. Product diversification is a must for all players in the industry to make smaller and more integrated systems.

Will these new VCSELs be used in the next Apple products in the coming years? The race for advanced and compact VCSELs in consumer electronics is ON. Who will have the final word – Trumpf, Coherent, Sony, Lumentum, or AMS Osram? Several players will certainly be involved. All eyes will be on Apple again.

Ali Jaffal Technology & Market Analyst, Compound Semiconductors & Emerging Substrates at Yole Intelligence
This shift towards GaAs-based proximity sensors in the iPhone 15 family may well send ripples throughout the InP industry. Earlier this year, we witnessed GaAs players like Freiberger and Trumpf venturing into the InP business, driven by InP’s adoption in consumer applications.
The question now remains: will this transition signify a slowdown in investments and capacity expansion in the InP photonics industry?

The year 2023 has been very challenging for InP players. First, a severe slowdown in the optical communications segment, and now InP penetration in the smartphone is coming to an end. Will we see a comeback for InP in the coming years in other consumer applications, or can GaAs make its way into under-display 3D sensing applications?

Stay tuned on for further information!

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About the authors

Ali Jaffal, Ph.D., is a Technology & Market Analyst specializing in Compound Semiconductors and Emerging Substrates at Yole Intelligence. As part of the Power & Wireless team, Ali is deeply engaged in the development of a dedicated collection of compound semiconductors market & technology reports and monitors.

Previously, Ali worked at CEA-Leti (France) as a Research engineer. His mission was focused on the design, growth, and clean room processing of GaAs semiconductor nanowires for visible-infrared photodetectors. During his Ph.D., Ali investigated in-depth the epitaxy (MBE) on InP nanowires dedicated to telecom applications.

Ali authored/co-authored eight scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals and a patent on III-V nanowires at CEA-Leti. He also delivered several presentations and was invited to numerous seminars at national and international conferences.

Ali Jaffal obtained his master’s in Nanotechnology from INSA (Lyon, France), Ecole Centrale de Lyon and Claude Bernard University (Lyon, France). 

Ezgi Dogmus, Ph.D., is Team Lead Analyst in Compound Semiconductor & Emerging Substrates activity within the Power & Wireless Division at Yole Intelligence, part of Yole Group. With an international team of technology & market analysts, Ezgi manages the expansion of the company’s technical expertise and market know-how. In addition, Ezgi actively assists and supports the development of a dedicated collection of market & technology reports, monitors, and custom consulting projects.

Prior to Yole, Ezgi worked as a process development engineer for GaN-based RF and power solutions at IEMN (Lille, France).

After graduating from the University of Augsburg (Germany) and Grenoble Institute of Technology (France), Ezgi received her Ph.D. in Microelectronics at IEMN (France).

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