How To Make the Most of Android's Front-Facing Camera

By Ryan Whitwam

What's a front-facing camera good for anyway?

Front-facing cameras have become one of the hot new features the modern "superphone" is expected to have. The Evo and Galaxy S kicked off this trend on Android, now Google has added native support in Android 2.3. With this milestone, the use of front-facing cams is likely to explode over the coming months as developers start building apps specifically for these cameras. Some third-party apps are already on the scene, and Android 3.0 Honeycomb will bring native video chat to some devices in the coming months. 


The state of the front-facing camera

The inclusion of a front-facing cam in the Nexus S indicates that this is going to be an expected feature for high-end phones from here on out. When Google gives us a stock experience with a feature, that becomes part of the standard Android experience. If manufacturers intend to add to Android, it is risky to take things away. The other benefit to the Nexus S having the front-facing camera is that Android now has a standard set of developer APIs for accessing the front camera. You won't have to look for special versions of Qik in the Market for your phone after Gingerbread rolls out. It's standard now. 

Even thought the camera app in Gingerbread supports switching to the front-facing camera, and even taking videos, there is no native video chat app. That's part of Honeycomb, so it's still down the road a way for phones. But developers are hard at work making video chat a part of the calculation in buying a new phone. 

Tango (screen image definitely simulated) 
Tango feels like a more polished experience to us. The UI is solid, and you can easily figure out what to do. Testing was done with the Nexus S which has a VGA camera. Quality is good; about as good as the videos look in the camera app. Frame rate was about 20 per second over Wi-Fi. 

Fring is perhaps a more useful app, as it supports various services like Google Talk, Yahoo, and Fring's own network. We've had poorer results with this app, though. It tends to be slow and there is no support for the Nexus S yet. We're also not crazy about the UI. The cute hand drawn thing is fine in small doses, but when you need to use an app to get something done, it's just annoying. Still, if Fring works on your phone, it can be of use. 

Since development of apps using the front-facing camera have, until now, relied on manufacturers rolling their own code, the landscape is a little barren. But we see a number of innovative uses for the front-facing camera coming in the near future.  

Native Video Chat

There is another way Google could move video chat along in the near future, and there is a precedence for it. They could separate the Talk app out from the core of the OS, and distribute it in the Market. This has been done with Maps, Gmail, YouTube, Car Home, and Voice Search. This would allow Google to roll video chat features out to many devices, even if they haven't gotten a Gingerbread (or Honeycomb?) update. 

Gaming and entertainment

There is a huge opportunity for developers to create richer experiences in games. Imagine a game where the character on the screen had your face, just as it appeared at that moment. That would certainly make a game more engaging. In a highly competitive online game, you could see your opponents. You know what we say at Tested, it's not worth playing if you can't win, and it's even more worth it if you can see the other guy's face when he loses.  

There is another category of games that people enjoy in real life, as well as virtually. Of course, we're talking about card games. But something is lost in translation from real life to the screen. You don't have to keep a straight face. What if you could play a game of poker with some friends from all over the world on your phone, and actually see people's faces when they placed bets? It would add a whole new dimension to the game. 

Security apps

You could also have an app that used facial recognition to unlock the phone, or to give you access to encrypted files without the hassle of typing in a pass code. When you've got a camera staring you in the face, it almost seems like a shame not to make use of it to make your phone safer. An app called BioLock is apparently in development that does just that.  

Right now, your options for using the front-facing camera are pretty limited. You can take pictures and video, or do video chat. These are certainly nice options to have, but we want more out of this hardware. Native video chat would be a nice start, and we anticipate the feature to come to Android phones (after first debuting in Honeycomb) before too long. The rest of it is up to developers. Games and security apps that take advantage of front-facing cameras are likely to be hot properties as more consumers look to utilize that lens peering at them from behind the bezel. What possible uses of a front-facing camera are you looking forward to?