LiDAR: Redefining Mobile Technology and Beyond

September 22, 2023

The LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor is a technology that employs lights or lasers to precisely measure distances to both stationary and moving objects. Its origins trace back to the early 1960s at the Hughes Aircraft Company, where it was initially developed to enhance satellite tracking. Over time, NASA incorporated it into select space missions, paving the way for its widespread adoption across various industries. 

One example of LiDAR’s functionality available in many modern homes is robot vacuums. These devices rely on this technology to construct detailed 3D maps of their environment, enabling them to identify and navigate around obstacles such as furniture, doors, and stairs.

However, it finds application in many other fields, such as robotics, the automotive industry (for self-driving and assisted driving), or location data analytics. GeoCTRL, for instance, integrated highly accurate LiDAR technologies into their multi-modal platform to map and analyze population movement in uncontrolled real-world environments with automated object classification. This approach empowers businesses and organizations to make data-driven decisions with more accuracy and efficiency without compromising personal data safety. Stay tuned to be the first to try this technology!

In the mobile space, there were different approaches to this technology. Apple played a key role in popularizing LiDAR when, in 2020, it introduced it in its devices such as the iPhone 12, iPhone 13 Pro, and iPad Pro. In this article, we will explore how this sensor works, what its applications are in the Apple ecosystem, and why it is an innovative technology to consider. 

How Does it Work?

LiDAR uses light in the form of a laser to measure distances and create 3D models of objects and environments. It works by emitting a laser beam and then measuring the time it takes for the beam to bounce back from an object or surface. The distance can be calculated by multiplying the time by the speed of light and dividing it by two. By scanning the laser beam across an area, LiDAR can create a 3D map of the shape and features of the object or environment.  

That’s not all. This technology can measure the color and intensity of the reflected light, which can provide information about the material and texture of the object or surface. It is safe to say that LiDAR is a very accurate and reliable technology that can work in any weather and lighting conditions.  

An Overview in the Smartphone Market 

The first foray into LiDAR began with Android devices. Google initiated "Project Tango" with the aim of enhancing augmented reality (AR) capabilities on smartphones by employing a variant of it called Time-of-Flight (ToF) sensors. In 2016 and 2017, two models with these sensors were released: the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro and Asus ZenPhone AR, which enabled users to scan objects and generate 3D images. In 2019, Samsung experimented with this technology on some of its phones, like the Galaxy Note 10+.

However, these phones didn't gain much traction and were discontinued. In 2018, Google shifted to ARCore, which relied on rear cameras and software for AR without using LiDAR sensors. Some of the reasons for this decision were the lack of widespread adoption and app support for Tango, the high cost and complexity of the hardware, and the competition from other platforms like Apple’s ARKit. Also, Samsung decided to abandon this path, starting with the Galaxy S21 series, due to the high cost and low usage.

Nevertheless, this trend isn't fading away; in fact, it's gaining momentum. Apple is leading in the integration of LiDAR technology, while other competitors like Huawei , Sony, Honor, and Oppo, released models with a 3D ToF sensor.

According to a report by Fact.MR, the global smartphone LiDAR market was valued at approximately US$1.63 billion in 2022 and is projected to grow significantly at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17.8% from 2022 to 2030. This growth is attributed to the increasing penetration of advanced smartphones, with smartphone LiDAR sales expected to surge by 3.7 times over the next eight years.

What Can Phones Do With LiDAR?

The LiDAR sensor has many uses today, so many that an iPhone without it is almost unthinkable. Let’s break them down to understand how necessary this technology has become today.

1. LiDAR to Improve Photos and Videos 

LiDAR allows iPhones and iPads to “see” in the dark. In recent years, photography in low-light conditions has been one of the points that smartphone manufacturers have pushed the most. A few years ago, Apple unveiled its Night Mode on the iPhone 11 Pro. Since 2020, it has aspired to go one step further with the inclusion of a LiDAR scanner for photography. What are the advantages?

  • Increased accuracy when focusing on scenes
  • Reduced photo capture time
  • Autofocus in low light is up to six times faster
  • Portrait mode photos for night mode

2. LiDAR for Accurate Measurements 

One of the easiest and most practical uses of this sensor on the iPhone is for taking measurements without the need for a traditional ruler. There are several excellent LiDAR apps available for both iPhone and iPad, but one of the top choices is the built-in app called Measure. The Measure app leverages LiDAR data, augmented reality, and basic trigonometry to provide precise measurements of people and objects.

This feature allows users to gather highly accurate information about the size of objects and their distances from one another and to generate measurements that are significantly more precise. Considering third-party apps, one example is the IKEA Place app, which leverages LiDAR to insert virtual furniture and home decor models directly into your living space. This enables you to get a precise preview of how new furniture will appear and fit in your home before making a significant buying decision. So, whether you're working on a do-it-yourself home improvement project or you want to decorate or redecorate your home, LiDAR can prove to be incredibly helpful.


3. A Better AR Experience With LiDAR 

As the popularity of AR on smartphones grows, so does the world of LiDAR technology. AR enhances our real-world environment by overlaying digital information, and smartphones are making this technology more accessible for everyday use. Apple, a pioneer in this field, has integrated an operational LiDAR sensor into the camera module of the iPhone 12 Pro, significantly improving AR experiences by providing more accurate and realistic 3D models of the surroundings. For example, it can be used to play games, preview furniture, or explore virtual worlds.

4. LiDAR to Scan 3D Models 

LiDAR Scanner apps can create 3D scans of objects and environments quickly and cost-effectively. They can generate virtual copies of real-life locations, create 2D maps of rooms, or map entire 3D worlds. This versatility opens opportunities for a wide range of applications, from design and architecture to gaming and virtual exploration.


Final Thoughts  

The LiDAR sensor, born out of aerospace technology in the 1960s, has evolved into a transformative force across various industries. As the global smartphone LiDAR market continues to expand at a remarkable rate, it's clear that this is not just another trend but a technology that has firmly established itself as an indispensable tool for innovation and convenience in our daily lives. With its potential applications seemingly boundless, what will LiDAR bring next?

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