Apple has shown the world the 2020 iPad lineup, and the new iPad Pro models come with a new feature: a LiDAR laser and scanner. While the tech can be used for a lot of things, Apple is using it for one very specific reason, and that's to bolster the AR (Augmented Reality) capabilities of the newest iPad Pros.
Google is also no stranger to AR, and you might remember hearing about Tango — Google's method to build an AR powerhouse for mobile. Tango used special sensors to create a pretty good AR experience, but the project was shuttered once a way to give us as much AR as we wanted using just the regular cameras with ARCore.
Apple has done the reverse and is bringing special sensing equipment back on the hardware side. Should Google do the same?
What is LiDAR?
LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging and is a way to create a three-dimensional map of whatever it's focused on.
A LiDAR system consists of a laser and receiver; the laser emits pulsed light, and the receiver measures the time it takes for the light to bounce back. It's not a new technology — your robot vacuum probably uses it, and NOAA has used it to recreate and model the surface of the earth for a while now, though Apple isn't doing things quite so grand.
On the 2020 iPad Pro, LiDAR is used to build an "image" of what the camera sees, so apps that have an AR component can use it to add animations and static images to the screen in exactly the right place.
Yeah, that looks cool. It's also something that could probably be done without using any special sensors, though Apple seems to think they are needed. It's tough to argue with the engineers who designed the new iPad, so I'll go with the idea that the LiDAR sensor makes things better.
Project Tango and ARCore
Google introduced Project Tango in 2014 as a side project from the ATAP team, and it was equally cool. It came to consumer devices from ASUS and Lenovo, and it worked as well as it did in the lab: a Tango device like the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro could map its surroundings and store the data so extras could be added by AR developers.
In 2017, Google shuttered Project Tango in favor of ARCore. Debuting on the Pixel 2, it was demoed with new stickers and animations in the Google camera app, but there are plenty of apps in Google Play that utilize ARCore.
Why Google did the reverse of Apple here — starting with extra hardware, then working on eliminating the need for it — is anyone's guess. Google might have found a way to cut costs yet was still good enough, or maybe the adoption wasn't strong enough to continue to build devices with expensive sensors. Either way, Tango is gone, ARCore is the replacement, and it works reasonably well.
Do the sensors need to come back to Android?
That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? Apple did AR using just the standard cameras for a while, and just because the new iPad Pro has a LiDAR sensor package doesn't mean that AR on the iPhone will stop working. Still, Apple must have a plan because the hardware isn't cheap, and adding it just to say "look at this!" isn't how things are done in the competitive world of mobile hardware. Apple must have a plan.
If you were to ask me what I think the future holds for a tablet with a LiDAR sensor package in it, I would instantly think about tieing it to GPS data. That's what LiDAR was originally designed to do and how NOAA uses it today.
AR is fun, but it's also useful. Google used Tango to build an indoor mapping system that gave audible cues to people with low vision so they knew where to safely step. With a precise location system, that map only needs to be "drawn" once, and then real-time checks need only look for changes that may have happened since the original. And those changes could then be changed on the "master" map.
Most people won't be using a tablet to navigate indoors, but the idea that the world can be built in the cloud using a LiDAR sensor could lead to some other applications. Imagine seeing someone capture a Pokémon on your screen while they're playing Pokemon Go on theirs. Or an application that that could act as a virtual tour guide on the display because it knows where you are and what to draw.
The Floor is Lava is looking like a cool game, but it could have been a cool game without LiDAR. Someone already has a great idea of how the tech can be used to make the iPad Pro do something it couldn't do before, and if that something is worthwhile (and cool) Google should think about reviving Project Tango so we can use our phones and tablets to have the same experience. If LiDAR does make a significant advancement in how AR can be used, look for just that to happen.
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