I’ll start this by saying I used to work for Apple, both in the retail space as a college student, and then again in business development while I was getting my MBA. Apple has always led the way in delivering exceptional service alongside premium products, from their support offerings, to their subscription services, to the physical structure of their retail stores. Servitization is the DNA of Apple’s 21st-century success (and, sacrilegious as it may seem, this has flourished under Tim Cook while it in many ways floundered under Steve Jobs) and it has set the standard for how to redefine retail for the digital age.

This is something I care about quite a bit, and I write about frequently, but this is not what we’re here to talk about today. Today we want to talk, specifically, about the implications that the new iPhone might have for service firms outside of Apple itself. This years’ iPhone upgrade cycle has introduced a feature that will have compelling repercussions for service, and that’s what we’re here to talk about.

The technology I’m talking about is not 5G, which I’ve already discussed, it’s LiDAR. This technology first appeared earlier this year in Apple’s iPad pro, so its appearance in an iPhone is not particularly surprising. But the increased portability and near-ubiquity of the iPhone means that suddenly this new tool will appear on many more job sites—and embedded in many more mobile service utilities.

So what is LiDAR? LiDAR stands for light detection and ranging, and what it does is shoot little lasers onto surfaces in order to create very detailed 3D renders. This CNET article has a number of very compelling examples of how this works in practice with the iPhone, from 3D modeling to simulating changes to the physical space with remarkable accuracy, to creating digital twins in real-time. LiDAR tech has been a key component in autonomous vehicles, drones, robotics, and wearables for years, but this is one of the first instances that the technology will be easily pocketable.

There are, with LiDAR, a number of interesting and compelling use cases for service. The most obvious is for remote assistance, which currently is enhanced through shared view using the camera itself. Enhanced projection and modeling will aid in accurately defining the space, helping to diagnose issues that may not be easily rendered through an image alone, and provide the ability to for remote technicians to interact with depth for on-screen instructions. This is a great way to minimize truck rolls and costs associated with service delivery while providing excellent outcomes for customers.

While we talk quite a bit about remote assistance, augmented reality can be a powerful tool for self-service as well, and with LiDAR, improved ability to provide overlays for directions would help dramatically improve the quality of step-by-step instructions. Here’s an example of how you could use it in your own life: Imagine you have a flat tire. Car companies are beginning to offer mobile apps for self-repair, so you download your app, point your camera at the car, and are taken through how to safely and properly replace a tire. With today’s technology, you usually line up one of the bumpers, and the overlay begins. But what if it’s dark? Or you have a dent in your bumper, or your kid slapped a bunch of stickers all over your car? LiDAR takes a burgeoning technology and potentially makes it foolproof.

I was recently doing some plumbing projects in my basement and I could easily see the application for tools like these. Take it a step further, and imagine lifting your phone below the floorboards, waving it around, then taking it and pointing it at the floor to see a 3D map of plumbing and electrical laid out above ground. That not only has applications for self-service, but for traditional service, too.

Will LiDAR be the killer app of the iPhone 12 Pro? Probably not for the average person, who will likely care more about the camera system, or possibly (though probably not) Dolby Vision. But in service, there is now a whole new toolset, and a lot of exciting potential. Let’s hope that service providers figure out how to elevate it for their customers.

Tom Paquin

Contributor, Future of Field Service