In 1928 a young scientist wrote a letter to the most famous mathematician in the world, Albert Einstein, about a theory he had about a new method for microscopic imaging. Incredibly, Einstein wrote back and told him that while the idea was not workable in a practical application, the theory was correct. This scientist, a man by the name of E.H. Synge would spend the next few years using his observation to advance our understanding of physics and therefore the physical world. What is even more incredible is that E.H. had what we now know as Aspergers, a form of autism, did not have a college degree, and did all of his work alone in his house in the suburbs of Dublin.
Of all of the advancements that E.H. made when it comes to microscopy and telescopy, likely the most practical was a method of using a spotlight to determine the altitude of clouds. At the time meteorologists and aviators relied on physical methods of measuring cloud height, usually sending a balloon or rocket up to the height of the clouds and retrieving the data once it came back down. This method had obvious drawbacks. So, Synge proposed that measuring the very small difference in the time it took to see the beam of light bounce back from the clouds would be enough to determine distance accurately. This method is what we know today as LIDAR, which, much like its cousin’s SONAR and RADAR, is an acronym and stands for Light Detection and Ranging. Today, LIDAR is the main way that everything from satellites to electron microscopes measures depth.
Like many new technologies, LIDAR began as a theory before becoming a cutting edge solution and eventually a consumer product. The laser measuring technique that was once reserved for the most advanced measuring equipment can now be easily reproduced by a handheld gadget. This month the largest gadget maker in the world, Apple, is expected to announce that their iPhone, the most popular handheld device ever, will come equipped with a LIDAR sensor.
A phone with laser beams might not be a huge selling point for the average mobile phone consumer but Apple is hoping that the added depth perception can expand what their already versatile device can do. An obvious application is scanning something to make a 3D model of it. The most lucrative commercial application of this is scanning buildings. From small homes to the largest stadiums, 3D modeling has become a tool that can be used to record changes to a building, visualize redesigns, or market space. Not all of the companies that do this type of scanning use LIDAR, but the ones that do are usually the most accurate.
The biggest player in 3D scanning when it comes to real estate is Matterport. The company had raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture funding and eventually went on to raise hundreds of millions more when it IPOed in July. At first, Matterport would provide their cameras or would work with local services to help real estate owners, managers, and brokers scan their buildings. Now they have pivoted their strategy a bit, largely because of the popularity of its iPhone app. In the most recent earnings call, Matterport’s CEO said, “Matterport for iPhone helped fuel our subscriber growth over tenfold in less than one year in the market.” As soon as Apple announced its new iPad and iPhone with LIDAR, Matterport released a new version of their software that takes advantage of the technology.
Matterport has invested heavily in their iPhone app and it has paid off. But one thing jumps out when you use the app, if you want more than any of the basic functionality, you get redirected to log in via a web browser. This makes for a less than optimal user experience but there is an important reason behind it. Apple takes one-third of all in-app purchases. Subscription services are already the largest contributor to Matterport’s revenue and now that Apple is equipping their iPhones with LIDAR sales of proprietary cameras and scanning services will represent even less of their sales.
Matterport, as well as just about every other 3D scanning company, is molding their business model around the fact that our mobile phones will soon be equipped with LIDAR. We are only at the beginning of our journey into 3D scanning, especially when it comes to the property industry. Eventually, I imagine that these interactive, immersive images will become the system of record for much of the built world. Why search through blueprints or fumble through old photos to see where a pipe sits behind a wall when you can use a 3D model to tell you exactly where it is in real-time.
Apple may bring LIDAR to the masses but while they are pivotal to the technology’s adoption, we need to at least pay homage to the man that discovered the principles to make it work. If it were not for that one letter from an unknown scientist to Albert Einstein, we might still be years away from being able to scan almost any object by doing little more than taking our phones out of our pockets.