Is LiDAR the next big advancement in digital health?

LiDAR may be the next big advancement in digital health. Here’s what to know about LiDAR and its role in medicine.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

What is LiDAR?

LiDAR, which stands for “Light detection and ranging” is not a new technology, although its recent addition to the plethora of sensors available on the Apple iPhone 12 Pro/iPad Pro has caused a recent buzz. LiDAR works by determining the distance between itself and an object by monitoring how long it takes a pulse of light (often a laser) to bounce back. This is similar to how radar works (but with infrared light instead of radio waves). I like to think of LiDAR as a bat that uses light instead of sound.

Photo by Nils Bouillard on Unsplash

LiDAR is used in a variety of applications, from self-driving cars to drones to gaming technology.

LiDAR on the iPhone

LiDAR was recently released on the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro. It has an effective range of 16 feet, sending out waves of infrared light pulses and measuring each one with its sensor. This creates a field of points, mapping distances and creating a “mesh” of dimensions and objects. You may be thinking you have seen this before, and you are correct. The Apple Face ID works in a similar way, just with a shorter range.

Image by venturebeat.

What evidence is there that LiDAR may play an important role in digital health?

From personalizing telemedicine to supporting people with disabilities, LiDAR has the potential to be a major player in the rapidly growing digital health space.

Personalizing Telemedicine and Symptom Checking

LiDAR is already being used to teach the medical community using digital applications and augmented reality and there is a body of research supporting its use. Check out what LiDAR has enabled the app “Complete Anatomy” to do in the video below.

This technology has great potential for telemedicine — the use of which has rapidly increased this past year due to COVID-19. Telehealth services are currently being used for preventing, diagnosing, treating, and controlling diseases. The applications of this anatomical visualization enabled by LiDAR could bring more personalization and objectivity to telemedicine.

I can imagine a LiDAR-enabled WebMD application where you can pinpoint specific areas of the body that may be affected. The old WebMD application allowed you to click on areas of the body where the symptoms were located. Imagine this idea, but in 3D and mapped to your own body.

Image by jankerissaespinosa.

Improving Patient Care

AccuVein is one company using augmented reality to make blood draws and IV sticks easier — by giving medical professionals a way to visualize veins under the surface of the skin. While they currently use a handheld device for vein visualization, with the introduction of LiDAR to mobile phones, we may start to see this type of visualization technology becoming more widely used.

Image by AccuVein.

Medical Imaging with a smartphone

While this is the area that may be the farthest away from having it in your smartphone tomorrow, there has been research demonstrating applications of LiDAR in medical imaging. The US Navy has applied LiDAR combined with radar to image cancer tumors. LiDAR enables greater penetration depth and high modulation signals that improve phase and amplitude sensitivity, making it ideal for medical imaging of tumors.

LiDAR has been utilized in 3D scanning and a great application for this would be in imaging for prosthetics and orthotics. This would be especially helpful for children, who frequently outgrow their prosthetics.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Camera Improvements with LiDAR

One of the most marketed features of the LiDAR sensor is its ability to improve the camera on the iPhone 12. With a number of apps already using the camera for digital health, including to monitor heart rate, examine blood hemoglobin using a picture of an eyelid, and identify moles that may be cancerous, camera improvements will enable improvements of tracking these measurements and and help algorithms make better predictions.

Supporting people with disabilities

Perhaps the most immediate application of LiDAR on the smartphone in the digital health space is in supporting people with disabilities.

The improved augmented reality experiences will help in daily living. Applications for interactive shopping, measuring, and home design are already using LiDAR to improve the user experience.

Image from Wayfair.

LiDAR has enabled virtual walk-throughs of 3D spaces, allowing for virtual experiences that may benefit those who are home-bound or have mobility challenges.

The Seeing AI app was created to help blind and visually impaired people navigate through their environment. This app has been greatly improved with the LiDAR sensor, which has enabled a spatial audio feature. When a user is wearing headphones, they will be able to hear objects around them announced from their location in the room. Users can also find a particular object by placing an audio beacon on it

While still in the early stages, lip reading using LiDAR would greatly benefit those with audio and visual impairments.

Mobile and wearable sensors are enabling the rapid growth of digital health and LiDAR is one sensor that has the potential to help advance medicine. Drop a comment below with your ideas for the future applications of LiDAR in digital health!

Digital Health Data Scientist | Lead developer at | Final year PhD Candidate at Duke | Ultramarathoner

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