How LIDAR measures distance

iPad Pro: The new LiDAR sensor can do that

It has long been speculated that Apple will install a triple camera and a 3D sensor in the next iPad Pro. Now Apple presented the much-anticipated device - and it is equipped differently than expected by the rumor mill. The new professional iPad has a pro camera system with a wide-angle and an ultra-wide-angle camera as well as a LiDAR scanner. This should improve the iPad Pro in many ways. What makes the LiDAR sensor so interesting?

What is LiDAR?

Basically, LiDAR is an abbreviation for "Light Detection and Ranging" and is similar to the well-known radar in which it optically measures distances. In contrast to radar, however, laser beams are used for this. Technology generally measures the time it takes for the light emitted by a laser to hit an object and return. The distance is then calculated from this. The distance measurement happens thousands of times per second, so that the receiver can draw a picture from it with different depths. The technology is usually used for measurements and should also enable self-driving cars to reliably analyze their surroundings in the future.

In the iPad Pro, use is limited to a maximum of five meters away and can, for example, recognize and record living rooms, objects or people. Together with the two cameras, the LiDAR system should better recognize scenes. According to Apple, a similar system will be used on the next Mars mission, although this is probably not entirely correct, as Apple is using its own patent, which was submitted to the patent office nine years ago and received a year later. Sometimes it takes longer before a patent is actually ready for the market. Incidentally, Apple writes the following about the new technology:

The LiDAR scanner measures the distance to objects in the environment at a distance of up to five meters, works both indoors and outdoors and works on the photon level at speeds in the nanosecond range. The new Depth Frameworks in iPadOS combine the depth points measured by the LiDAR scanner with the data from both cameras and motion sensors and are enhanced on the A12Z Bionic by computer vision algorithms for a deeper understanding of a scene.

How does LiDAR make the iPad Pro better? Or why do I need it?

LiDAR can improve the user experience with the iPad Pro in several ways. According to Apple, it is primarily used for augmented reality content and allows the digital content to be provided more precisely in the room. The technology shortens the set-up times that are currently still necessary. In addition, the LiDAR scanner will be particularly noticeable in Apple's tape measure app, which should work faster and, above all, more precisely than before thanks to the sensor.

It remains to be seen whether Apple will use the technology in other areas. It would be conceivable to use it for photos. The scanner could support the autofocus with more precise depth information and thus ensure correct focus points, especially in poor lighting conditions. Interestingly, Apple will not equip the iPad Pro with a portrait mode for the rear camera for the time being and will continue to offer this only for the TrueDepth camera on the front - even though LiDAR seems to be perfect for capturing depth information in portrait shots.

Primary fields of application of LiDAR:

  • 3D scans of objects, rooms and people
  • More precise application of AR content
  • Improved focus when taking photos in low light conditions

LiDAR in other Apple devices?

Apple often uses the iPad to try out new technologies. Not all attempts are equally adopted for the iPhone or other devices - one example is the ProMotion technology for the 120 Hz display, which so far has only been found in the iPad Pro. LiDAR, on the other hand, could also reach the 2020 iPhone for AR also improve on smartphones. According to current iOS 14 leaks, Apple could actually add a 3D sensor to the triple camera of the Pro models.

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