A fourth or fifth camera, a supercharged processor, a stronger grip, unbreakable glass...These are all great, but they don't awe the technological end user any more. Similarly, the newest, shiniest versions of some of our favorite handheld devices are no longer expected, like the beginning of a new era. But this year, with the new iPad Pro and iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max got one thing that actually makes these devices stand out and managed to excite us all, which is the promising LiDAR technology.
LiDAR has been around since the 1960s, and most people have heard about it one way or another. For most of its history, LiDAR was an expensive technology that was in the service of the military and space missions. It was also a bulky one. For the ones who are not familiar with this technology, LiDAR means Light Detection and Ranging. It is a type of scanner or radar that scans the environment, predicts depth, and creates a 3D map of the surroundings by sending laser beams and measuring the duration in which they return to the source. This happens very quickly, though, like in nanoseconds, so that you can expect results very quickly.
Until now, the closest we get to LiDAR in consumer products is self-driving cars. This technology helps the car's brain detect if there's anything on its way, like a human being crossing the street. However, apart from some prototypes here and there, these cars are not in use yet. But as its fellow technologies like computers (remember the 80s?) and radars, finally LiDAR made its way to the everyday consumer products, like the iPad Pro and iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max.
So how are these tiny LiDAR sensors on smartphones working? Before Apple introduced LiDAR into its latest devices, some of the leading smartphones on the market were using the 3D time-of-flight (ToF) sensors, which also acts like a lidar, minus the "scanner." ToF sensors are also good at creating 3D maps of the surroundings but not as accurate. They send a single pulse of infrared light, but an actual lidar scanner sends way more than that to map the environment. It also has a broader range and more accurate object detection.
The LiDAR scanner in iPad Pro and iPhone 12 Pro is located on the back of these devices. A black dot at the bottom of the camera section indicates that your phone has a lidar sensor on it. What this mini scanner does, opens up a new world of possibilities. This mini lidar scannwe has a range of approximately 5 meters (16 feet), and it creates a 3D model of the environment within its range in split seconds. It determines the distances between you and the obstacles around you, gives sound and haptic feedback on different levels, according to the distance between you and the objects around you. Pretty good, isn't it?
LiDAR on the phones also enhances the abilities of AR games, shopping apps, CAD-based programs. For example, apps like RoomScan LiDAR and IKEA Place allow you to measure, reorganize, and redecorate your house using the perks of lidar's depth detection and AR.
Seeing this as an opportunity, we decided to up our game. We created the new and free Super Lidar app using this lidar sensor to benefit the blind and low vision community. Super Lidar is one of the first apps that use LiDAR technology to analyze the distance and detect the obstacles that might pose a danger to blind and low vision users.
We build Supersense as a super simple app with no buttons and no confusion. Super Lidar follows that principle as well with its basic and straightforward screen. You open the app, scan your environment with your phone: It tells you what's around and how far with sound, speech, and haptic feedback.
Super Lidar's two auditory feedback mechanisms are dedicated to two different options. Sound feedback tells you about your environment: high pitch sound indicates an open space. That is, no obstacles around you. The lower it gets, the more crowded is your surroundings. Speech tells you about people. It even tells if the people around you are wearing a mask or not. The range of the lidar scanner is pretty wide for a handheld object so that it can detect obstacles above your head and at the cane or dog's level.
There is also haptic feedback, which warns you about the objects close by. You get in 4 feet (around 1.2 m) distance, and it vibrates. You know how to maintain a healthy distance with things and people, especially in days of COVID-19.
Super Lidar is super basic and super instant. Want to go out and have a walk but cannot make sure if it's safe during the pandemic with the social distance and face masks and all? Super Lidar aims to make this walk safer for you. It is designed not to augment reality but your sensory skills. We know that our blind and low vision community has already some excellent skills for navigation like echolocation, so this is an add-on right now.
Super Lidar is a prototype; it's the first step forward. We want to build it more, making it more advanced in time and with your feedback. We hope the community will drive the research and development of this project.
Super Lidar will be available only for the new iPad Pro and iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max now. It's completely free. No in-app purchases, no subscriptions.
We’d love to have a conversation. If you are a part of the blind and visually impaired community, you’d like to be part of our mission, or share your ideas and collaborate with us, get in touch with us.
We are based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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