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Could LiDAR Unlock the Sci-Fi World of Tomorrow?

Compared to Hollywood’s portrayal, life in the 21st century can sometimes feel a bit of a let-down. Where are the cities full of driverless cars? The hand-held lasers? The robotic killing machines who’ll stop at nothing to topple their human overlords? Ok, maybe not that last one...

But what if some of these things are much closer to being realised than we thought?

Enter LiDAR – short for Light Detection And Ranging. LiDAR scanners bounce laser beams off objects to calculate distance based on how long the signal takes to come back. They can do this to the nearest ten billionth of a second, and use this information to construct three-dimensional, 360-degree maps of their surroundings.

And the exciting bit? This technology isn’t under lock and key in a secret lab somewhere. If you’ve got a newish iPhone or iPad, you may well already be carrying this laser superpower around in your pocket.

Watch my short explainer video on how the technology works, and how we might be able to use it:

There are at least three good reasons to get excited about LiDAR:

1. It can help us bridge the gap between the real world and the digital world

Imagine a future where we’re all carrying laser-powered 3D scanners in our pockets; where our phones pull up 3D scans of real spaces we’re approaching or want to visit; or where news reports can virtually place us right in the midst of unfolding global events.

LiDAR enables us to mesh out objects, spaces and rooms in three dimensions, and then layer photographic imagery on top - a technique called photogrammetry. You’re likely to be familiar with this if you have played around with any form of Augmented Reality (AR). Because LiDAR does this much more quickly and accurately than a standard camera, it could be the crucial technology that finally unlocks the potential for AR to be put to much greater use.

App developers are offering a glimpse of what this 3D digital future may look like. Games like Hot Lava use LiDAR to scan your surroundings and turn them into a game. The free 3D Scanner App allows you to capture anything in 3D — rooms, furniture, food, gardens — and then create editable models. I’ve previously written about how AR is being embraced in retail by the likes of IKEA, whose apps are helping customers to virtually see furniture in their rooms before deciding whether to buy.

The New York Times is exploring how LiDAR technology can be used to enhance its journalism and bring stories to life. Two-dimensional maps and images may soon be obsolete.

2. It is making new discoveries about the world around us

Last year, scientists used LiDAR to map the Amazon Basin, and discovered the remnants of a 1,500-year-old ancient urban settlement. This was far larger and more complex than historians had previously anticipated, and the finding has led to a big shift in thinking on the history of Amazonian tribes. It turns out the Amazon was home to advanced societies long before the arrival of Europeans, as had previously been thought. Archaeologists described the discovery as “mind-blowing”.

3. It will drive our science-fiction future of autonomous robots and self-driving cars

Before letting self-driving cars loose on the roads, we’ll need to be confident they can navigate the many obstacles that present themselves during a typical journey – pedestrians stepping out between parked cars, young children at zebra crossings, cyclists stopping to turn, oncoming vehicles overtaking lorries. This is where LiDAR comes in, with its pinpoint accuracy and ability to continuously map surrounding in three dimensions at any time of the day or night.

The Swedish car manufacturer Volvo recently started including LiDAR scanners in some of its models. As the company boasts in its marketing: “It will see what you sometimes can’t and help prepare your car for safe autonomous driving.” Bosch, the German engineering company which manufactures parts for many different makes of car, believes that LiDAR will be indispensable as we move towards a world of autonomous vehicles.

It’s not just self-driving cars. Robot vacuum cleaners now employ LiDAR sensors to navigate their way around our homes more efficiently. There is surely a case for using this technology in any device or gadget that moves. In the video, we included a brief clip of Boston Dynamics’ scarily impressive Atlas robots which use LiDAR to find their way around (even if it hasn’t yet enabled them to entirely master the art of getting from A to B without falling over…)

A different perspective: Can cameras and radars do the job just as well?

As car companies race to develop the future of motoring, there is a consensus that LiDAR will be an essential feature. There is one notable dissenting voice though – Tesla’s owner Elon Musk. Never one to mince his words, Musk said in 2019:

“LiDAR is a fool’s errand. Anyone relying on LiDAR is doomed. It’s like having expensive appendices, you’ll see…”

Tesla’s alternative view is that, through a combination of cameras, radars, and extremely sophisticated AI (Tesla’s neural networks) their cars can comprehensively map their surroundings in three dimensions already. Building on Musk’s anti-LiDAR stance, Tesla’s AI Director Andrej Karpathy once joked to conference attendees that: “You’ve all used your neural network in your brains to get here. You didn’t shoot lasers from your eyes to drive.”

Of course, that may be true, but even the impressive AI systems developed by Tesla cannot yet claim to match the most powerful and advanced computer in the known universe – the human brain.Advocates for using LiDAR in cars argue that it has several important advantages over cameras, which will be key to road safety:

  • It does not need natural light so will work just as well at night. Cameras, on the other hand, sometimes struggle in low-light conditions.

  • It is less vulnerable to optical illusions like heat haze, where a mirage can occur when looking at objects through a mass of heated air.

  • It measures distance, whereas a camera-based system can only interpret it. Tesla argue that their method is good and accurate enough, since it essentially mirrors how we see: our brains process signals from our eyes to give us a perception of depth. This helps us to distinguish between small objects that are close and big objects that are further away. However, trying to replicate the workings of the human brain in a car computer takes up a lot of processing power. And, as fans of the popular 1990s sitcom Father Ted may remember, interpreting distance from visual cues is not always entirely foolproof…

Should we be worried about our hoovers?

I’m guessing that, at some point, you’ve probably used Google Street View to look up your home address. Now, imagine a future where, in addition to 2D maps and roadside pictures, it’s possible to pull up a three-dimensional scan of every room in your home and everything in it.

As more and more devices like phones, cars and vacuum cleaners become 3D data capture tools, it will pose some important ethical questions. Who owns the data they capture? And how will it be used?

Last year, Amazon acquired iRobot, the company behind the popular Roomba robot vacuum cleaners. Privacy campaigners said that the $1.7 billion takeover “may be the most dangerous, threatening acquisition in the company’s history.” They believe that the world’s biggest retailer has motives other than helping us wage war on dust.

Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer rights group, said:

“The last thing America and the world needs is Amazon vacuuming up even more of our personal information. This is not just about Amazon selling another device in its marketplace. It's about the company gaining still more intimate details of our lives to gain unfair market advantage and sell us more stuff."

Such concerns will hardly have been allayed by the recent case of pictures captured by Roomba vacuums leaking onto social media.

Security issues like this will be applicable to any device that uses LiDAR. And, in all probability, that will soon be a lot of things.

As we finally approach the world of self-driving cars and domestic robots promised by the movies, we will need to be aware of our surroundings, to make sure they’re changing for the better.

Recommended further reading

  • Augmented Reality (Apple) If you have a LiDAR equipped iPhone or iPad, here are some ways you can use it. Apple has recently started trialling some new accessibility features which make use of LiDAR, like helping blind or partially sighted people detect when they are approaching a door.

  • Creating Stories You Can Walk Through (The New York Times) The New York Times’ experiments in 3D storytelling include an impressive virtual tour of a 36,000-square-foot LA mansion used by some of the most influential figures in e-sports.


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