Any video conferencing app can use the iPad Pro’s fancy zoom and pan camera

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Apple has confirmed that the digital pan and zoom feature of the new M1 iPad Pro’s front-facing camera can work with any video conferencing app, not just FaceTime. That opens the door for popular apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to make remote work and e-learning blend more seamlessly into the realities of pandemic life — a hybrid lifestyle that’s likely to continue even after the outbreak subsides.

Center Stage, as Apple brands it, keeps video conferencing participants properly framed even as they move about a room by combining machine learning with a fixed 12-megapixel sensor touting an ultra-wide 122‑degree field of view. We’ve seen similar tracking on the Portal TV, Echo Show 10, and even the Xbox Kinect accessory. But those are niche devices compared to the iPad, which saw sales surge last year as students and remote workers snapped the tablets up in droves.

“Center Stage works with FaceTime and other video conferencing apps,” says Apple on the iPad Pro landing page. Apple missed its chance to scale FaceTime to compete with the likes of Zoom and Teams by reneging on its promise to make it an industry standard in favor of ecosytem lock-in.

The ultra-wide front-facing camera is still located at the “top” of the new iPad Pro.
Image: Apple

Apple demonstrated Center Stage with two participants, both of whom are recognized and framed appropriately as they move about a kitchen, on a FaceTime call with a third. It’s a good demo; the COVID-19 pandemic has blended work and life so hard that it’s now fairly common to see people making dinner during a Zoom meeting across international time zones, or a kid asking for a parent’s help during a Teams school lesson. Tech like Center Stage can help further infuse this sense of humanity into our otherwise stoic professional and educational pursuits.

Unfortunately, the position of the front-facing camera, unchanged on the new M1 iPad Pro, makes participants appear to be staring off to the side when used with a keyboard dock, as is common for business and school uses. And iPadOS creates other frustrations for video conferences. Hopefully the iPad Pro is just a start and we’ll see ultra-wide Center Stage cameras coming to the much maligned, but better positioned, MacBook webcams soon.

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