Lidar has the potential to be Apple’s next “here today, gone tomorrow” technology. The laser-based depth scanner was the marquee addition to the 2020 Apple iPad Pro that debuted this March, and has been rumored for nearly two years as a 2020 iPhone feature. Recently leaked rear glass panes for the iPhone 12 Pro and Max suggest that lidar scanners will appear in both phones, though they’re unlikely to be in the non-Pro versions of the iPhone 12. Moreover, they may be the only major changes to the new iPhones’ rear camera arrays this year.
From an article in VentureBeat by Jeremy Horowitz
If you don’t fully understand lidar, you’re not alone. Think of it as an extra camera that rapidly captures a room’s depth data rather than creating traditional photos or videos. To users, visualizations of lidar look like black-and-white point clouds focused on the edges of objects, but when devices gather lidar data, they know relative depth locations for the individual points and can use that depth information to improve augmented reality, traditional photography, and various computer vision tasks. Unlike a flat photo, a depth scan offers a finely detailed differentiation of what’s close, mid range, and far away.
Six months after lidar arrived in the iPad Pro, the hardware’s potential hasn’t been matched by Apple software. Rather than releasing a new user-facing app to show off the feature or conspicuously augmenting the iPad’s popular Camera app with depth-sensing tricks, Apple pitched lidar to developers as a way to instantly improve their existing AR software — often without the need for extra coding. Room-scanning and depth features previously implemented in apps would just work faster and more accurately than before. As just one example, AR content composited on real-world camera video could automatically hide partially behind depth-sensed objects, a feature known as occlusion.
In short, adding lidar to the iPad Pro made a narrow category of apps a little better on a narrow slice of Apple devices. From a user’s perspective, the best Apple-provided examples of the technology’s potential were hidden in the Apple Store app, which can display 3D models of certain devices (Mac Pro, yes; iMac, no) in AR, and iPadOS’ obscure “Measure” app, which previously did a mediocre job of guesstimating real-world object lengths, but did a better job after adding lidar. It’s worth underscoring that those aren’t objectively good examples, and no one in their right mind — except an AR developer — would buy a device solely to gain such marginal AR performance improvements.
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