3D Scanning LiDAR Market Disruption: Alive and Well

Key Points:

1. This past year has seen the emergence of two disruptions in the 3D Scanning LiDAR market.

2. FAROs Focus 3D LiDAR Scanner is a low-end disruptive entrant to the stationary 3D scanning market.

3. The PrimeSense 3D Sensor is a non-traditional LiDAR delivering unique value to a new market. It is already being adapted for real-time robotic navigation and could latently disrupt the 3D scanning LiDAR market.

4. These disruptions pose challenges for incumbents. However, they also yield benefits that should be enjoyed by service providers and end users in the years ahead and continued healthy growth of market applications.


As LiDAR zealots, we like to think of LiDAR as an innovative and disruptive technology. Our perspective is that LiDAR disrupts other technologies or the status quo. But what happens when LiDAR itself experiences disruption? Thats exactly what I see taking place with a number of recent developments in 3D scanning LiDAR markets.

In this article, I explore how two recent and award-winning innovations represent different types of disruption and should have serious implications within LiDAR markets in the years ahead. I describe the forces at play and what I think will take place as these fluid market situations evolve. The first disruption is the Focus 3D laser scanner from FARO Technologies. The second is the 3D sensor from PrimeSense that forms the discriminating advantage for Microsofts Kinect gaming system.

3D Scanning LiDAR Developments and Segmentation

By way of background, lets remind ourselves of what has been going on the 3D scanning LiDAR market since the introduction of first products in the 1990s and integration with critical Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. Manufacturers like Optech, RIEGL, Trimble, Leica Geosystems, and Airborne Hydrography AB have been continuously enhancing their product offerings. Enhancements include such features as selectable pulse repetition frequencies up to 500 kHz, sophisticated single and multi-pulse transmission and acquisition formats, dual transmit wavelengths, eyesafe transmission wavelengths, and associated software for registration, feature identification and profile extraction.

The survey and mapping jobs are more complex while processing workflow has become more automated. The performance envelopes have been pushed outward (measurement distances to four or more kilometers, multi-pulse-return processing to map canopied regions, and so on). The advancements apply across the board, but perhaps most visibly to mobile ground-based and airborne 3D scanning sensors. Optimal integration with traditional photogrammetry is maturing and provides a robust system solution with mapping accuracy and integrity unmatched in history. Indeed, these have been pretty exciting times for LiDAR.

Many of the major LiDAR sensor companies have product offerings across multiple market segments. Figure 1 illustrates this situation in a simplified format. The vertical axis of Figure 1 is labeled Performance and is intended to be generic but I am focusing on the subset of maximum range, area coverage in a fixed time period, and diversity of environments that can be surveyed. A band of inclined lines is shown, each corresponding to a different general market segment. The market segments are meant to be illustrative and not exhaustive. The incline in the market segment lines indicates that performance has been creeping up over time.

As one marches upward through the market segments, the opportunity for better profit margins is generally improving. The main players in the 3D scanning market are obviously enticed to grow their business base and simultaneously improve their profitability. Thus, they continue to develop and release enhancements and new product offerings to satisfy their most demanding and highest-paying customers. For those familiar with Clayton Christensens The Innovators Dilemma or The Innovators Solution, the market is ripe for disruption because the manufacturers are responding most to a key subset of their customersthe ones with the deepest pockets. This leaves them open to overshooting general customer need and exposing themselves to lower-performing, but more affordable, products.

Focus3D: Low End Disruption –

Photo Caption: 3D Scanning LiDAR product performance enhancements and incentivized structure open the door for a disruptive up-market move by FARO and their Focus 3D sensor.

In the latter half of 2010, FARO introduced its Focus 3D laser scanner. The Focus 3D has earned accolades including a 2011 Best New Innovation award from Popular Science Magazine. Compared with existing products performing tripod-mounted stationary 3D mapping, the Focus 3Ds maximum range is notably less than the competition (comparing Focus 3D specifications to those of the RIEGL VZ-400 and Optechs relevant sensors including their ILRIS-3D and CMS V400, as representative examples). However, the Focus 3D can generally achieve higher pixel rates and arguably better range accuracy. Also, and importantly, its price point is significantly lower than the incumbent offerings. The Focus 3D bears some resemblance to its Laser Scanner Photon 120 and 20 predecessors, but the compact, lightweight, touch-screen-operated design is quite new and has created a big splash.

While not quite textbook, this has most of the elements of low-end market disruption and an up-market move for FARO. The situation is depicted in an alternate way in Figure 2. FARO has observed many customers in the 3D laser scanning segment are being over-served by the range performance of the available products. By instead focusing on ease of use, reduced weight, and a lower price point, FARO is betting that a sizeable fraction of the customers will see their performance as adequate and their pricing attractive.

How Will Incumbents Respond?

Photo Caption: A performance versus unit price view illustrates the challenge faced by incumbents.

When low-end disruption takes place, it begs the question: how will the incumbents respond? In traditional situations, the incumbents will ultimately flee. This has occurred in several other markets explored by Christensen such as disk drives and steel mills. Competing head to head with FARO will require incumbents to reduce their price point, perhaps with a lower-performance offering. However, this is where the innovators dilemma kicks in. The incumbents have a suite of product offerings across more than one of the market segments. The largest margins are generally offered in the mobile and airborne markets. Because they have an opportunity for better margins, those market segments will tend to command the lions share of internal resources. The shortage of remaining resources left to compete in the lower-end segment makes it challenging for the incumbent to remain active. However, because there really are no huge LiDAR companies, these more agile incumbents may buck the trend. Lest FARO become complacent, I do predict that other players will likewise make an upward move. So, FARO will still have competition even if the incumbents flee. It should be interesting to watch this evolve over the next few years.

The next logical step will be to put the scanning sensors on a mobile platform. SITECO Informatica already did this with a Focus 3D predecessor. Does FARO develop its own integrated mobile offering? If so, this leads to another up-market move to compete with the mobile 3D LiDAR vendors. The march up and to the right of Figure 2 will continue and the cycle will tend to repeat itself in each market segment.

PrimeSenses 3D Sensor: The Case for Latent Disruption

Another disruptive angle that comes into play begins with innovation that addresses non-consumptionnew markets. What I have in mind here is the interactive game console market first enabled by the Nintendo Wii and recently disrupted by Microsofts Kinect. What drives Kinect is the 3D sensor developed by PrimeSense, cited by Technology Review Magazine as one of the 10 emerging technologies for 2011. PrimeSense is taking 3D sensing for gaming environments additional steps by developing more sophisticated gestural interfaces for computers ( la the jaw dropping computer interface in the film Minority Report).

The PrimeSense 3D Sensor does not use time-of-flight processing, but it is clearly a LiDAR. It relies on triangulation as it projects a diode laser speckle pattern into the room and then images the scattered light with a spatially offset camera. Novel processing using a reference pattern is then applied to detect and range objects in the field of view. The maximum distance for the PrimeSense 3D sensor is in the range of 3 to 5 m with accuracies of a few centimeters. A detailed independent analysis of the accuracy of the Kinect/PrimeSense 3D Sensor was recently published by Khoshelham and Elberink.

Already, the PrimeSense 3D sensor is being adapted for other new markets. MIT recently reported an algorithm to continuously map the 3D environment for robots and perhaps, ultimately, blind people. They are only using cheap cameras and infrared sensors (like the PrimeSense 3D Sensor) to generate the requisite point cloud data. The requirements are far less stringent (short range, a few centimeters of accuracy may be okay), but this adaptation is really just a small-scale and more nimble version of the multiple mobile LiDAR scanners currently driving around on the top of vehicles.

PrimeSenses technology has a way to go before it can attain the distances and coverage offered by the likes of the Focus 3D or other incumbent 3D laser scanning products. However, with alternate packaging, a longer sensor baseline, and increased infrared transmit power, distances much greater than the current usable range should be achieved. PrimeSense likely has their hands full dealing with the various derivatives that address consumer applications, whether it is enhanced gaming consoles, PCs, eBooks, and so forth.

Thus, I would be surprised to find them directly innovating to enter the 3D Scanning LiDAR market. Rather, another company might choose to carry the ball forward. This is the latent disruption scenario depicted in Figure 3. If the $30,000 to $40,000 price tag for Focus 3D seems attractive, the cost of the basic PrimeSense 3D sensor, which is reported to be south of $100, seems to me irresistible. Who knows, is it too far-fetched for one of the 3D Scanning LiDAR incumbents to bite?

Photo Caption: PrimeSenses 3D sensor is competing in a different arena, but with future enhancements and adaptation, it may disrupt the 3D Scanning Lidar market.


This past year has seen disruptive innovation in the scanning 3D LiDAR space. FAROs Focus 3D and PrimeSenses 3D Sensor illustrate two very different ways that innovative disruption takes place. The biggest winners are service providers and end users. The future should hold more exciting LiDAR developments with a larger number of potential customers in additional market adjacencies. Watch this space.

About the Author

Stephen Hannon

Stephen Hannon... is the Principal and Founder of Mind the Gap, LLC, where he advises startups and small businesses across the spectrum of technical feasibility/evaluation to market and competitive analysis and positioning. Steve is an expert in LiDAR (laser radar) remote sensing and signal processing. He played various strategic roles with coherent laser radar touchstone Coherent Technologies, Inc., extending from early days of a dozen employees through and beyond its acquisition by Lockheed Martin. While there, he developed the WindTracer® pulsed Doppler LiDAR and spearheaded its commercialization, yielding first-of-their-kind installations at airports and other facilities around the world. Steve earned his B.S. Electrical Engineering degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Masters and Ph.D. Electrical Engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Steve is a Boulder Innovation Center (BIC) Advisor, a member of the IEEE Photonics Society, and a member of the Joint Council on Applications for CLEO: Application & Technology. Steve and his family reside in Colorado, and when Steve is not working or writing, he is golfing. Always golfing.    See more writing from Steve at MindtheGapLLC.com/steves-blog.html.
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