July 24, 2014

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Apple and 3D becoming everyday, everywhere

Justin Toland

The discovery that Apple has filed a patent for 3D imaging in iOS-based devices has set the tech blogosphere buzzing over the last few days. For those who haven't seen the patent application, here's a link. Scroll through the legalese and in paragraph 25, you see the following: "In one embodiment, the first imaging device may be a Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) sensor. The LIDAR sensor may emit laser pulses that are reflected off of the surfaces of objects in the image and detect the reflected signal. The LIDAR sensor may then calculate the distance of an object from the sensor by measuring the time delay between transmission of a laser pulse and the detection of the reflected signal." 

Whether or not the iPhone 5 will be able to scan objects and create 3D models from those scans remains to be seen, but you can bet your bottom dollar such functionality is in the pipeline for future generations of devices from the world's number one consumer tech company. And, given Apple's size and renowned ability to connect with what people want from technology, sometimes even before they know they want it (think of the runaway success of the iPod and iPad), that's really big news for laser scanning, a potential game-changer.

04.03.12 Apple 3D imaging patent
From the Apple patent published last week.

Sure it's not going to make a difference (is it?) to the high-end, high-detail scanning business, the world SPAR readers inhabit. But it will probably be the means by which mass market scan-to-3D print technology really takes off. The importance of making laser scanning something you can do easily with your phone was something the guys from bitBOX, the Portuguese 3D printing startup, highlighted as very important in my recent interview

Equally important, perhaps, is the ecosystem of services that will enable the user to quickly go from scan to print. This is an area that Apple, with its App Store, is very well positioned to deliver and in a way that people are already familiar with. 

Of course, the Cupertino-based tech behemoth isn't going to have things all its own way. Particularly as the scan-to-print ecosystem is already being rolled out elsewhere. One of the most interesting new developments I've seen in this space is the Dutch company Shapeways, which recently created a lot of buzz at the music/tech/film event SXSW in Austin, Texas. This firm's user-friendly website promises "Ideas made real with 3D printing" and describes itself as "the marketplace for relevant, custom products, created on demand using 3D printing." 

Users can upload their own designs and have them professionally 3D printed in a range of materials (from plastics to silver) and delivered to the home within a couple of weeks. You can also select any of the other designs (many of which are customisable) and have those printed for you. Shapeways is also forging links with existing social networks, including with the musician's favourite, Soundcloud (offering its users the chance to 3D print an iPhone cover with the soundwave of the piece of music of their choice). Through such alliances scan-to-3D print will become everyday, everywhere.

Meet George Jetson 

Another way in which laser scanning could soon be a part of daily life was recently demonstrated to a bunch of auto industry journalists by Continental. The German tyre giant has created a semi-autonomous or "driver assist" vehicle that has clocked up 10,000 miles of testing at the firm's development centre in Brimley, Michigan, as well as on public roads. Among the off-the-shelf technologies the unassuming looking Volkswagen Passat has been tricked out with is a short-range lidar system that, combined with a camera, identifies potential obstacles in the car's path and, if a "point of no return" is reached, sends a signal to engage the brakes. Tests have reportedly been successfully carried out at speeds of up to 45 mph. 

Whilst we are still some years away from a Jetsons-like world of driverless cars, when we do get there, it seems that lidar will have played a leading part.



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