3D Scanners

Apple granted patent for 3D mapping system – 3D printing or autonomous vehicle project?

Apple has just been granted almost 70 new patents, including new 3D mapping technology. The latest batch of technical documents gives some insight into what the Cupertino, California based company has in store for the future.

The patents include positioning technology for improving mobile communications, biometric sensors and a 3D mapping system.

Apple 3D scanning and mapping

U.S. patent number 9,677,878, Scanning Projections and Image Capture Modules for 3D Mapping, was granted on June 13 2017. The 18 page document describes how a 3D map of an object can be created using,

A radiation source, which is configured to emit a beam of radiation. A first scanning mirror is configured to receive and scan the emitted beam … A second scanning mirror is configured to scan the sensing area over the selected angular range.

The device projects a pattern of spots, in what elsewhere might be referred to as structured light. In the Apple patent other methods of 3D scanning and mapping are described as using a laser speckle – or random pattern – and an imaging detection unit. Processing of this image data by the appropriate algorithm results in a 3D map.Fig 1 from the Apple 3D mapping patent

3D mapping can also be conducted using a fixed pattern of spots.

The Apple patent states, “The processor is arranged to derive the 3D map by finding respective offsets between the spots in the captured image and corresponding reference spot locations belonging to a reference image of the pattern.”

3D mapping for gaming and autonomous vehicles

One illustration in the patent shows the device in use in what appears to be a recreational setting. Similarities between the Microsoft Kinect system are likely to be drawn. Indeed in 2013, Apple bought PrimeSense – the company who developed the 3D sensor inside the Kinect. Therefore it comes as little surprise to see Alexander Shpunt, co-founder of PrimeSense, named as one of the inventors on Apple’s new 3D mapping patent.

Also, the Kinect can be adapted to use as a 3D scanner.

PrimeSense sell several 3D scanners, but with Apple’s autonomous vehicle plans underway the 3D mapping technology may also find application for driverless vehicles. In an interview last week Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed details of the secret project.

Carwow imagine how the Apple self driving vehicle may look. Image via Carwow
Carwow imagine how the Apple self driving vehicle may look. Image via Carwow

Cook says that Apple’s focus on autonomous systems is a, “core technology that we view as very important.” The Apple CEO also describes the venture into automotive as the, “the mother of all AI projects.”

Interestingly, Google has just announced that after 4 years of work on the Waymo/Firefly pod-like driverless cars, the company will now focus on working with automotive manufacturers rather than go it alone.

Patenting the paper bag

Apple write that the new patent is intended to give an example how the 3D mapping apparatus may be used. However, the “invention is not limited to what has been particularly shown.” Apple claim that any variations or modifications that might occur to a skilled person reader the patent should also be included in the scope.

Intellectual property and patents are an emotive topic in the 3D printing industry. We took a closer look at the subject with several intellectual property experts in this article.

In the wider tech world Apple has received criticism – and occasional praise –  for patenting rounded corners and a paper bag.

The patent troll from Silicon Valley Season 4
The patent troll from Silicon Valley Season 4

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below about the Apple’s 3D mapping endeavors and the wider issue of intellectual property as a barrier, or boost, for advancing technology.

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Featured image shows figure 6 from Apples patent “Scanning Projections and Image Capture Modules for 3D Mapping.”