What is the LiDAR system on the iPad all about?

So, the new iPad has a LiDAR system built in to its rear camera. What's that all about then?

What is LiDAR?

LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging and it uses lasers to measure the distance to things and create a 3D picture of what's in front of it. It's used to create maps and autonomous vehicles use it to determine what obstacles are around them.

If you're interesting in learning a bit more about LiDAR, have a look at the following video:

Why is Apple interested in LiDAR?

Apple have long had an interest in augmented reality (AR) and LIDAR can be used to construct an AR view of things. According to Apple's glossy advert, you could for example use it to measure your shoulder abduction and that's something everyone needs to know about themselves.

What's the range of the scanner and how does it work?

The one in Apple's 2020 iPad has a range of about 5 metres (16.5 feet). Apple says it works at the "photon level" and at "nano-second speeds", which I don't find particular illuminating as that just sounds like a description of light. But Apple does go a bit deeper than that, saying:

New depth frameworks in iPadOS combine depth points measured by the LiDAR Scanner, data from both cameras and motion sensors, and is enhanced by computer vision algorithms on the A12Z Bionic for a more detailed understanding of a scene.

Which is impressive, I'm sure.

I already know my shoulder abduction — what else could I use it for?

Apple glossy showing LiDAR scanner measuring shoulder abduction.
Measuring shoulder abduction with LiDAR.
One use that comes to mind is that you could scan your room and then place various coffee tables in the picture to see how they'd look before you buy one. As a man quite particular about coffee tables, this would probably be useful to me.

Beyond floor plans and such I can't see too many immediate uses but I'm sure app designers will come up with some ideas.

Where is Apple going with this?

I get the impression this is just a first foot in the water for Apple and AR. There have been rumours for some time that Apple wants to create some AR glasses and maybe this is a testing ground for that.

Should I rush out and buy an iPad with a LiDAR scanner?

Personally I wouldn't. I'd wait a while to see where this is going unless you already have some pressing need to get funky with a LiDAR scanner.

Where can I find out more?

The internet is full of articles about the latest iPad release but I couldn't find much about how a LiDAR scanner might be useful to me.

Apple's latest advert for the new iPad has a short segment about the LiDAR scanner (30 seconds in).