The lockdown put many things on hold, including the chance to try out Apple's new iPad Pro. Here it is though, an impressively powerful tablet that with the new Magic Keyboard and second-generation Pencil costs a shade over $3900 including GST.
Yes I gasped too when I added up the cost of the new 4th generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro and accessories but it's for the top-end model with one terabyte of storage. Dropping down to a still substantial 512 GB storage, losing the cellular data support and spending the $639 the Magic Keyboard costs on cheaper third-party alternatives will set you back $2389 instead.
The Magic is a sweet iPad Pro keyboard though, now that the iPad OS operating system has trackpad and cursor support which works reasonably well bar on a few sites that use small clickable elements.
Adding cursor support could be seen as a tacit admission by Apple that Microsoft went down the right route with its Surface tablets conceptually.
Apple's gear has decent lifespan and you could save money by getting a third-generation iPad Pro instead. Benchmarks indicate that the older device is about as fast as the 4th gen model in fact.
The older A12x Bionic chipset in the 3rd Gen iPad Pro received a graphics hardware tweak, making it an A12z in the 4th Gen device which also has better cooling so that you can load it up and still maintain full performance.
Apple decided not to put the A13 chipset, which is faster on a per-core basis into the new iPad Pro, probably to save it for future upgrades with two or more cores added.
Going for a 4th gen iPad Pro also means a 120 Hz refresh (that's the maximum amount of times the screen redraws per second) display for flicker-free movement, and an improved dual wide/ultrawide camera system similar to the iPhone 8, along with excellent audio recording and playback.
Next to the cameras there's another novelty, for Apple at least: a light-detection and ranging (LiDAR) system. This flashes infrared laser beams to create a grid of light points that can be read by a sensor on the iPad Pro. By measuring how long it takes (time of flight) for the light to hit an object and bounce back to the iPad Pro, the LiDAR can instantly provide a range of details.
That can be movement, distance, shape allowing the LiDAR data to be used to visualise three-dimensional objects digitally. Cameras in comparison provide two-dimensional data based on reflected light, and require lots of computing power to approximate three dimensions from images and video captured.
Both spatial awareness approaches have their pros and cons, with Elon Musk famously dissing LiDAR in favour of multiple cameras, radar and powerful computers in Teslas for self-driving. Let's leave that war of words between geeks for now though.
Little is known about the LiDAR system so far. It appears to be made by Sony with a small semiconductor, a vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser or VCSEL which sounds very sci-fi but was first devised in the 60s.
VCSELs are now everywhere, including hair removal and wrinkle smoothing devices at beauticians, and li'l LiDARs like Apple's one.
iPad dismantlers reckon the LiDAR in the iPad Pro has a resolution of 0.03 megapixels and the system can shoot lasers at objects a maximum of 5m away.
That's not heaps in either case, but shooting lasers around chews through the battery so that's what the iPad Pro is limited to for now.
Time of flight (ToF) sensors have been around for a while like in the decade-old Microsoft Kinect 3D scanner that detects player movement for games. Ditto the camera systems in top-end Samsung and Huawei smartphones that have had ToF sensors the last few years.
LiDARs in comparison have been used for specific applications like mapping large areas.
Think Google Street View cars with Dalek-size high-power LiDARs on their roofs and laser-bouncing drones and planes used for military and civilian applications.
Taking it further though, social distancing brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic could push the tech into mainstream, small business applications.
Instead of measuring something in person at a location, doing it accurately and fast with a smartphone or an iPad and sending the data over the internet to suppliers for quotes or custom fabrication could create some seriously interesting online business applications.
Maybe such a system could even attain that holy grail of e-commerce, buying clothes and shoes the right size on the web?
Tradies, designers, games and entertainment developers, medics wanting better telehealth tools, there are plenty of existing areas where 3D sensing tech supplemented by cameras, movement sensors and artificial intelligence could fit in well.
Augmented reality becomes much more real with spatially aware applications. As an aside, there's frenzied speculation on social media about whether or not Apple will put the LiDAR in it's rumoured VR and AR goggles and glasses, or instead rely on the U1 Ultra Wideband Chip and sell a ring with a signal beacon to capture movement data.
You can see some early ideas with LiDAR enabled apps that use Apple's new ARKit 3.5 software development kit. There's the Adobe Aero and iScape designer AR apps, and the amazing Complete Anatomy medical school training program, for example.
That said, the LiDAR is work in progress. The App Store isn't exactly crowded with spatially aware apps, especially ones that are useful for SMEs. Some of it is due to practical reasons like the price and rarity of LiDAR equipped Apple gear. The 5m-range limit plus coarse dot resolution of the LiDAR system that limits it to scanning large objects that are nearby need to get better too.
Nevertheless, devices that accurately and quickly "see" the three-dimensional environment users are in is an exciting concept that has the potential to better connect people and businesses, without needing to be in the same space physically.
It'll pay off for businesses and developers to watch this space and think creatively about which real-life activities can be not just digitised and put online but done socially distanced with technology as well.