The iPhone 12 Pro’s lidar sensor — the black circle at the bottom right of the camera unit — opens up AR possibilities.
Apple is going bullish on lidar, a technology that’s brand new to the iPhone 12 family, specifically to the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. (The iPhone 12 Pro is on sale now, with the iPhone 12 Pro Max with the Pro Max following in a few weeks.)
Peer closely at one of the new iPhone 12 Pro models, or the most recent iPad Pro, and you’ll see a little black dot near the camera lenses, about the same size as the flash. That’s the lidar sensor, and it’s a new type of depth-sensing that could make a difference in a number of interesting ways.
If Apple has its way, lidar is a term you’ll start hearing a lot now, so let’s break down what we know, what Apple is going to use it for and where the technology could go next.
What does lidar mean?
Lidar stands for light detection and ranging, and has been around for a while. It uses lasers to ping off objects and return to the source of the laser, measuring distance by timing the travel, or flight, of the light pulse.
How does lidar work to sense depth?
Lidar is a type of time-of-flight camera. Some other smartphones measure depth with a single light pulse, whereas a smartphone with this type of lidar tech sends waves of light pulses out in a spray of infrared dots and can measure each one with its sensor, creating a field of points that map out distances and can “mesh” the dimensions of a space and the objects in it. The light pulses are invisible to the human eye, but you could see them with a night vision camera.
Isn’t this like Face ID on the iPhone?
It is, but with longer range. The idea’s the same: Apple’s Face ID-enabling TrueDepth camera also shoots out an array of infrared lasers, but can only work up to a few feet away. The rear lidar sensors on the iPad Pro and iPhone 12 Pro work at a range of up to 5 meters.
Lidar’s already in a lot of other tech
Lidar is a tech that’s sprouting up everywhere. It’s used for self-driving cars, or assisted driving. It’s used for robotics and drones. Augmented reality headsets like the HoloLens 2 have similar tech, mapping out room spaces before layering 3D virtual objects into them. But it also has a pretty long history.
Microsoft’s old depth-sensing Xbox accessory, the Kinect, was a camera that had infrared depth-scanning, too. In fact, PrimeSense, the company that helped make the Kinect tech, was acquired by Apple in 2013. Now, we have Apple’s face-scanning TrueDepth and rear lidar camera sensors.
The iPhone 12 Pro camera could work better with lidar
Time-of-flight cameras on smartphones tend to be used to improve focus accuracy and speed, and the iPhone 12 Pro will do the same. Apple promises better low-light focus, up to 6x faster in low-light conditions. The lidar depth-sensing will also be used to improve night portrait mode effects.
Better focus is a plus, and there’s also a chance the iPhone 12 Pro could add more 3D photo data to images, too. Although that element hasn’t been laid out yet, Apple’s front-facing, depth-sensing TrueDepth camera has been used in a similar way with apps.
It will also greatly enhance augmented reality
Lidar will allow the iPhone 12 Pro to start AR apps a lot more quickly, and build a fast map of a room to add more detail. A lot of Apple’s AR updates in iOS 14 are taking advantage of lidar to hide virtual objects behind real ones (called occlusion), and place virtual objects within more complicated room mappings, like on a table or chair.
But there’s extra potential beyond that, with a longer tail. Many companies are dreaming of headsets that will blend virtual objects and real ones: AR glasses, being worked on by Facebook, Qualcomm, Snapchat, Microsoft, Magic Leap and most likely Apple and others, will rely on having advanced 3D maps of the world to layer virtual objects onto.
Those 3D maps are being built now with special scanners and equipment, almost like the world-scanning version of those Google Maps cars. But there’s a possibility that people’s own devices could eventually help crowdsource that info, or add extra on-the-fly data. Again, AR headsets like Magic Leap and HoloLens already prescan your environment before layering things into it, and Apple’s lidar-equipped AR tech works the same way. In that sense, the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro are like AR headsets without the headset part… and could pave the way for Apple to make its own glasses eventually.
3D scanning could be the killer app
Lidar can be used to mesh out 3D objects and rooms and layer photo imagery on top, a technique called photogrammetry. That could be the next wave of capture tech for practical uses like home improvement, or even social media and journalism. The ability to capture 3D data and share that info with others could open up these lidar-equipped phones and tablets to be 3D-content capture tools. Lidar could also be used without the camera element to acquire measurements for objects and spaces.
Apple isn’t the first to explore tech like this on a phone
Google had this same idea in mind when Project Tango — an early AR platform that was only on two phones — was created. The advanced camera array also had infrared sensors and could map out rooms, creating 3D scans and depth maps for AR and for measuring indoor spaces. Google’s Tango-equipped phones were short-lived, replaced by computer vision algorithms that have done estimated depth sensing on cameras without needing the same hardware. But Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro looks like a much more advanced successor.