Stanford University has managed to develop a system LiDAR much cheaper than the current one, which could make the use of 3D cameras definitively mainstream – especially in the smartphone industry. LiDAR is extremely widespread in the automotive sector for the operation of driving aids, but in mobile it is quite rare: the most illustrious example are the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max (opening photo), thanks to which they are able to improve in focus in low light conditions.
Simplifying a lot, a LiDAR is based on a light source and a modulator that turns it on and off at extreme speeds, we are talking about millions of times per second. The light rays are projected into the environment and hit it, and based on how they “return” to the sensor (speed and angle) it is possible to reconstruct the environment itself (and the objects it contains). So far, the main complication has been the modulator; engineers have managed to build a very simple one that takes advantage of the phenomenon known as acoustic resonance.
Key element of the invention is the lithium niobate: a transparent piezoelectric crystal. When stimulated by electricity, the atomic structure of the crystal changes shape, and vibrates in a very constant way in terms of frequency and intensity. Vibration causes a strong light modulation effect. Another advantage of this procedure is that it is extremely energy efficient.
This particular modulator can be coupled to a normal CMOS imaging sensor, the same that is used on any smartphone camera out there. Scientists have already created a working prototype capable of capturing three-dimensional images at higher than megapixel resolution by reusing a common camera that can be purchased in any electronics store (image above); and as if that weren’t enough, after the publication of the research they further optimized the modulation process by reducing energy consumption by as much as 90% – and believe they can reduce it by a further “several hundred” times.
Of course, innovation has potential in many sectors, not just that of smartphones. Let’s think, for example, of drones, or even a very banal robot vacuum cleaner, so as not to bother the aforementioned ADAS of self-driving cars and vehicles. But it is thanks to smartphones that 3D imaging could reach the widespread diffusion that has so far escaped it in the consumer sector, and start making a difference – beyond the obvious implications for biometric authentication, there are startups that are developing some pretty cool concepts about it, such as Uplift Labs, which specializes in sports performance and posture assessment. during training, to increase your efficiency and above all to reduce the risk of injury. In an industry that is increasingly lacking in innovations, this could represent something of a turning point.