LiDAR scanner makes 2020 iPad Pro an augmented reality powerhouse


Look inside the LiDAR scanner in the 2020 iPad Pro
The innovative LiDAR scanner in the 2020 iPad Pro is fast and accurate.
Photo: Apple/Cult of Mac

The 2020 iPad Pro is the first Apple computer with LiDAR. This innovation enables the tablet to make an accurate 3D map of its location. Combine it with software improvements and this tablet is, in Apple’s words, “the world’s best device for augmented reality.”

And the LiDAR scanner might be usable for other purposes, as well.

Time for LiDAR 101

The LiDAR scanner in the latest iPad Pro works like a short-range version of radar. It scans a laser over the entire area behind this tablet, measuring the distances to objects by seeing how long it takes light to reach an object and reflect back.

Apple’s version of this Time of Flight sensor has a range of 16 feet (5 m). It works indoors and outside, and creates maps nearly instantly.

ToF technology gets used in terrain mapping, including going into Mars probes. And LiDAR scanners let self-driving cars sense objects around them. These cost hundreds of dollars, if not more. While they are certainly more elaborate, their price tags are an indication that the one built into the 2020 iPad Pro is a fairly expensive piece of kit.

It’s all about augmented reality

Apple built LiDAR into its latest top-tier tablet explicitly for augmented reality applications. AR overlays computer-generated images onto the real world, and therefore needs to know exactly where real-world objects are.

David MacQueen, executive director at Strategy Analytics, explained to Cult of Mac that “The first step in augmenting reality is to understand that reality by mapping the environment the user is in, and what recognizing relevant/useful objects are in that environment.”

This ToF sensor will upgrade the capabilities of Apple’s ARkit software, which is already in iOS and iPadOS. “ARKit as it stands can find flat surfaces and place a virtual object on that, but not do a lot else when it comes to understanding the environment. ToF sensors could help ARKit go beyond that and open up new possibilities to app developers.”

The LiDAR scanner in the 2020 iPad Pro will work with the pro cameras and motion sensors built into the tablet to give AR applications the additional information they need.

Plus, Apple’s augmented reality software has been improved. The company promises that “Placing an AR object now happens instantly. Realistic object occlusion allows AR objects to pass in front of and behind real-world structures. Improved motion capture and people occlusion are more accurate than ever. And developers will be able to create even more immersive experiences.”

But with the 2020 iPad Pro just announced but not yet released, there are questions about what it else the LiDAR scanner can be used for. Currently, there’s no way to know if it be able to scan an object accurately enough so a copy can be made with a 3D printer, for example.

Likely in the 2020 iPhone too

It’s not likely Apple is putting all its augmented reality eggs in one virtual basket because Apple CEO Tim Cook is a big supporter of this tech. “I’m excited about AR,” he said during a speech in Ireland in January. “My view is it’s the next big thing, and it will pervade our entire lives.”

With a LiDAR scanner going into the latest iPad Pro, it becomes much easier to trust earlier rumors that this fall’s iPhone 12 Pro will also be equipped with this technology.


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