Over the next few months, you’re going to hear “LiDAR” thrown around a lot in tech.
LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is, in its simplest form, a way of measuring distance with light. The concept of measuring with light isn’t new, and even LiDAR has been around since the 60s, when lasers first came on the scene. The first LiDAR systems consisted of lasers mounted to the underbelly of planes. As planes would steadily fly, the lasers would be aimed at the ground and would measure the distance to the ground below, giving us an accurate topographical map.
LiDAR didn’t really take off until the 80s, however. When GPS was introduced as a way to pinpoint locations via satellite, LiDAR found a new practical way of measuring distance without being mounted to a plane. As a satellite orbits, LiDAR could do its job more efficiently and cover more ground.
For sixty years now, LiDAR systems have been refined to be even more accurate and precise at measuring the topography of the earth. Why then, would it ever come across your consumer tech vocabulary? As it turns out, LiDAR can be used for a lot more than just mapping the ground.
As consumer tech embraces AR and VR more as a way to interact and blend the digital and physical worlds together, there is a need to feed real world data into our digital devices. Consider, for example, how Apple’s FaceID works. Using a suite of infrared cameras, your face (real-world data) is securely scanned in order to unlock your phone. While it won’t be used to unlock things, LiDAR is bringing the same type of interspatial interactivity to our gadgets. The funny thing is, bringing LiDAR to consumer tech isn’t a new battle. It’s just now finally getting to a reasonable point of entry.
LiDAR has long been a key component of having autonomous cars. Look at AV research over the past few years and it’s hard to miss the gigantic LiDAR rig mounted on the roof of test cars. Elon Musk once doomed LiDAR tech because not only is it unsightly bulky (which is kind of the antithesis of Tesla), but it’s also expensive. Those test rigs usually run in the ballpark of at least $75,000. Understandably, it’s hard to get the consumer tech industry to bite at an expensive and bulky piece of equipment for the novelty. So instead, Tesla and several others in the AV space have turned to alternatives, like stereoscopic camera systems and radar.
But like computers, LiDAR is getting smaller and less expensive every day. In fact, you can get your hands on LiDAR right now with Apple’s latest iPad Pro. Let’s face it: $700 and the size of a dime is a lot more palatable than the gigantic LiDAR systems of yesterday. And if rumors are true, you could see a LiDAR system on the next generation of iPhones due this fall.
Really, this is a huge deal. By sizing them down, making them more affordable, and producing them at a dizzyingly mass scale, LiDAR isn’t just for NASA anymore. The tech translates to more immersive uses for your favorite devices. LiDAR in handheld gadgets is being utilized for AR games, scanning and creating 3D models and shapes, and even rendering architectural models in real-time.
In cars, it’s starting to put other forms of autonomous scanning to shame. Volvo has partnered with the startup Luminar to incorporate new, relatively inexpensive, sleek LiDAR scanners into future vehicles. By cutting down the cost and the bulk, the real value of LiDAR in AV is starting to take off.
On paper, LiDAR is already a more accurate way to map physical space than stereoscopic camera and radar systems. Where cameras fail to differentiate shadows or bright lights, the lasers LiDAR systems use are able to cut through any kind of light (or lack thereof) interference. As a plus, it’s far more accurate and takes less computing power to map things out than camera systems.
By eliminating the two biggest obstacles keeping LiDAR away from the mainstream (cost and size), cameras have to play catch-up. Cameras are cheap, easy to hide, and can be combined to create a stereoscopic version of their surroundings, working much like our eyes do. But the devil is in the details.
Like our eyes, cameras rely on what they take in. They can also be tricked like our eyes can. Research from the University of Washington, the University of Michigan, Stony Brook University, and the University of California Berkeley showed that camera systems can be tricked by altering physical signs to confuse an AV’s onboard computer. That isn’t to say LiDAR is completely safe from tampering. LiDAR can be spoofed too, but it’s a lot more difficult to do so. Overall, LiDAR plays an important role in keeping AVs safe.
Gaining popularity in AVs and personal gadgets, you’re going to hear LiDAR a lot. It’s not nearly as controversial as 5G (which again, won’t give you cancer), but its impact can be just as huge. Aside from the advancements in store for autonomous driving, its impact in AR and VR will help merge physical and digital worlds together, bringing a whole new level of interactivity to us. It might seem like a novelty now, but as LiDAR continues to improve and find its way into more consumer products (ahem, like smart glasses), the novelty of today will seem commonplace tomorrow.
Joe Staples is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. When he’s not writing about buzzword tech and rolling “lidar” around in his mouth so much it loses meaning, he’s wondering how many houseplants he can buy and put around the apartment before his fiancée notices and says something. So far, only one. But there’s room for more. And he’s for hire! You can reach him on Twitter, email him, or subscribe to his newest venture, Staples Sound Off.
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