Another September means another iPhone launch. Of course, Apple has probably got all sorts of weird new features prepared for its flagship. Rumor has it that LiDAR integration is just one of the things we can expect from the theoretical iPhone 12 when it comes out later this year.
“Wait,” you have to think. “What the hell is LiDAR?” It’s not a completely new concept in the technology world, but it’s something iPhone fans may not be quite familiar with. A quick Google search may make you think that the next iPhone will shoot laser beams at your cat when you try to take a picture of the person sitting in a cardboard box.
What does LiDAR mean?
LiDAR stands for Light Detection And Ranging. You may have noticed that the name is similar to “radar”, or Radio Detection And Ranging, which is not a coincidence. The two technologies exist to do something about what is happening in the environment around them, but their methods are completely different.
Radar transmits radio waves from a receiver. The radio waves then bounce off objects in the vicinity of the receiver to detect how and where said objects are moving. You know, angle and speed, things like that. Think of a weather radar, which measures how fast and in which direction a storm cloud is moving.
LiDAR, on the other hand, emits invisible light rays from the entire light spectrum. This means that a LiDAR sensor can use infrared and ultraviolet light to map the environment around it. It can get a sense of both physical dimensions and movement (if any) of objects nearby.
In other words, LiDAR is a way to find out what’s going on around you using laser beams. Sounds pretty awesome, right? It is cool, but the inclusion in the new iPhone is just the latest implementation of an extremely versatile and useful technology.
What do lasers have to do with a smartphone?
LiDAR is not something you would inherently associate with handheld smart devices. The technology is often used in airplanes and self-driving cars, giving you an idea of how differently LiDAR can be used, depending on what you need out of it.
For example, LiDAR can be mounted on aircraft and used to map the topographic properties of the earth’s surface, as demonstrated by the National Ocean Service. An airborne LiDAR sensor can give you a sweeping view of what land looks like both above ground and under the sea. Infrared lasers measure dry land while green light waves can go under the ocean waves to map what is happening down there.
LiDAR is also very useful for self-driving cars, which need accurate, up-to-date data on what is happening around them to function without human drivers. With LiDAR, a self-driving car can detect what is happening around it, so (in a perfect world) it does not make fatal mistakes. It would not be ideal if the futuristic robot cars after all tried to navigate busy city streets based only on GPS data. There are just too many possible things that can interfere with their routes.
Seriously, check out what the data that a self-driving car retrieves looks like. There is a lot to take in, but LiDAR plays a big role in making it happen by providing useful data on objects in the vehicle’s immediate area. In fact, at one point it was said that Apple developed its own LiDAR sensors for self-driving cars.
How will iPhone 12 implement LiDAR?
Before you ask: No, the new iPhone is probably not going to map out the mysteries of the ocean or get the car to drive itself. I mean, you never know with Apple, but it’s smart to be realistic with your expectations. Fortunately, we have some leaks to work with, as well as precedent from Apple itself. And both of these things give us a decent idea of what the iPhone 12s LiDAR scanner can actually do.
Leaker Jon Prosser released a video back in August that allegedly shows some features from a pre-release build of the rumored iPhone 12 Pro Max. In the phone’s camera settings menu, we can see a switch for LiDAR, which is described as an aid to “autofocus and video and night mode scene detection.” Simply put, the new iPhones’ cameras can use LiDAR to better distinguish between foreground and background objects while focusing automatically. This is obviously good news for the iPhone’s already excellent portrait mode, but as the leaked camera menu indicates, it can also help with night photography and videos.
It may sound significantly less exciting than what you expected based on everything LiDAR can do outside of the smartphone realm, but that’s not all. Do you remember the precedent from Apple we mentioned earlier? The latest iPad Pro from earlier this year also came with a LiDAR sensor. A recent Fast Company report indicated that the sensor in the new iPhones would be similar to that, if not the same as the one in the iPad Pro.
Halide has a handy and very detailed analysis of the iPad’s LiDAR sensor that you can check out. The most exciting applications for LiDAR are perhaps not for photography, but for augmented reality. By jumping light waves from surfaces, the new iPhone may be able to perceive exactly where objects are relative to each other in a room, which can be useful for all sorts of things.
Do you want to update your living room? Maybe the LiDAR sensor can help with that by scanning the room and placing 3D models of new furniture where there is none, to give you an idea of how the sofa or entertainment center can fit the room. This is already possible on current iPhones via things like the Amazon app, but even there you can not do it with every product, and an annoying amount of scanning and calibration is required just to do it in a way work. LiDAR can make the process faster and make it more realistic and thus more efficient.
Of course, AR is useful for all kinds of games and entertainment purposes. It will probably take a while before we see the true potential of a LiDAR sensor in the new iPhone, but when the technology is in the hands of more consumers and developers, things should become more interesting.
Will every new iPhone use LiDAR?
Probably not. As always, Apple is reportedly launching several new iPhones that will run across a range of prices and feature sets. The consensus is that we will see four new iPhones this year between two “regular” iPhone 12s and two iPhone 12 Pro models.
Pros’ leak was only able to confirm LiDAR in the iPhone 12 Pro Max, is said to be the most expensive and most advanced group. According to the Fast Company report, both Pro models are set to receive LiDAR support, while the non-Pro models have to live without it. If you follow Apple’s product launches year after year, this is not likely to surprise you.
Fingers crossed that the purely hypothetical iPhone 13 is capable of implementing LiDAR, even in the lower variants when they theoretically launch in late 2021. The more people who can benefit from it, the better. Some will use it for truly futuristic means, and others will use it to put virtual cowboy hats on their cats. Anyway, it’s beautiful.