Apple-Leased Vans Gathering Maps Info for Shift to In-House Mapping Database

For the past several months, Apple-leased Dodge Caravans with equipment-laden roofs have been spotted driving around the United States. While early speculation suggested the vans could be Apple’s first attempt at developing a self-driving vehicle, it quickly became clear that the vans were being used for mapping purposes.

The Dodge Caravans are all outfitted with an array of LIDAR cameras, much like the vehicles that Google uses to capture images for its Street View mapping feature, so it is no surprise that a report shared today by 9to5Mac suggests the images and data from the vans is going to be used for future improvements to Apple’s Maps feature. Here at MacRumors, we have been aggregating Apple van sightings to give a clear picture of the areas where Apple is currently focusing its attention.

Click on the map to go to a full interactive view complete with pictures from each sighting
Apple has worked tirelessly to improve the Maps app since its 2012 launch, fulfilling Tim Cook’s promise that Apple would work „non-stop“ until Maps met its „incredibly high standard.“ The next step in Maps’ evolution is the gathering of in-house data to reduce reliance on third-party companies like TomTom, which has provided data for Apple Maps since it launched. Just this month, TomTom and Apple renewed their mapping contract, so Apple’s shift towards its own data system may still be several years off.

Using in-house data has the potential to significantly improve the Maps experience. Apple will not have to rely on third-party information that’s potentially riddled with errors and inaccuracies, and the company will also be able to implement changes and fixes more quickly.

In the future, the imagery captured by the vans may be used by Apple to create its own 3D street level viewing experience to complement its existing Flyover feature. Flyover is designed to let Maps users explore landmarks and major cities around the world through an aerial view. A street level addition to Flyover could perhaps be useful in day-to-day life to get a look at nearby locations, but it’s possible Apple has its eye on something grander, perhaps giving Maps users a way to explore exotic locations on a more granular level.

Apple is also reportedly using its fleet of Dodge Caravans to capture images of storefronts and businesses, and this data may be of more immediate use to the company. Imagery of stores, businesses, and restaurants may be incorporated into an upcoming iOS 9 revamp to Apple’s Points of Interest system, replacing photographs pulled in from third-party sources like Yelp.

We may see the first fruits of Apple’s new mapping project as soon as June 8, when Apple unveils iOS 9 at WWDC and provides it to developers for testing purposes. iOS 9 is rumored to have a few other upgrades in addition to a new Points of Interest system, including transit routing information in a limited number of cities.





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Apple-Leased Vans Gathering Maps Info for Shift to In-House Mapping Database

A Look at LinX Camera Technology That Could Appear in Future iOS Devices

Apple’s recent acquisition of LinX Imaging is one of the company’s more exciting acquisitions in the last several months, as the technology being developed by LinX could lead to some significant improvements in camera quality in future iOS devices. Given the significance of the purchase, we wanted to take a deeper look at LinX’s technology and what it could do for future iPhone photography.

No More Protruding Camera

LinX specializes in multi-aperture cameras for mobile devices, which offer several benefits over single aperture cameras, including the ability to pack impressive image quality in a smaller size. With a multi-aperture camera, LinX is able to take advantage of several smaller sensors rather than one large sensor, preventing the camera from needing a longer lens.

The iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus were equipped with protruding lenses so Apple didn’t have to sacrifice image quality for thinness, but it’s possible Apple could shrink the length of the camera in future iOS devices with LinX technology, resulting in a flush rear exterior. According to LinX, the use of multiple sensors over a single large sensor let it shrink the height of its camera device by a factor of 1.4 to 2. Comparatively, one of LinX’s dual-aperture cameras was described by the company as „significantly“ thinner than the iPhone 5s camera and able to „fit in a device thinner than the iPhone.“

SLR Image Quality

LinX announced the launch of its most recent mobile-ready multi-aperture camera in June of last year, and in documentation [PDF], the company highlighted the many ways in which its technology improved upon other multi-aperture camera designs, citing image quality as its first priority.

When designing our algorithms and modules our first priority has always been IMAGE QUALITY. We even leveraged the multiple channels to boost the sensitivity of the camera which allows us to capture stunning images at very low light levels and keep exposure times short at normal indoor light levels.

LinX’s mobile cameras were described as offering SLR-like images in normal lighting conditions with low noise levels, due to their ability to capture more details than standard single aperture cameras. To offer proof, LinX captured several photos with its LinX 8 mpix, a dual aperture camera with two 4-megapixel sensors with 2.0 micron BSI (backside illumination) pixels, and compared those to images taken with the iPhone 5s (equipped with an 8-megapixel single aperture camera with 1.5 micron pixels) and an iPhone 5.

Noise Reduction and Detail
The images captured by the LinX camera were brighter and clearer, with a significant reduction in noise. Available detail when zoomed into a photo was also much greater, as can be seen in the comparison below.

Indoor Lighting
In the photo below, the image was taken in mid-levels of light, at approximately 40 to 50 lux, similar to a decently well-lit room in a house or restaurant. The LinX sensor let in more light than the iPhone 5 or the Samsung Galaxy S4, for a photo that is clearer and sharper with less noise.

Very Low Lighting
LinX technology is able to significantly improve low light performance by using multiple channels to increase the sensitivity of the camera for better detail. It also keeps exposure times short to cut down on the motion blurring that can impact photo quality in conditions where lighting is not optimal. For a mobile camera in one lux of lighting, the detail that the dual-aperture LinX 8 mpix was able to capture is impressive.

Low light photos with less noise are also achieved through the use of clear pixels (adding clear pixels to standard red-green-blue filters) to let more light pass through in situations where lighting is low. The use of clear pixels lets in light without the need for larger pixels, keeping resolution high. Larger pixels typically result in more light for the sensor, but using large pixels cuts down on resolution. LinX technology doesn’t have to compromise between pixel size and resolution, as it can use small pixels but still let in adequate amounts of light.

Pixel Technology

Smaller pixels also often introduce pixel crosstalk that can impact color clarity to result in muddier colors, but the LinX camera’s clear pixels are less sensitive to this issue because they can collect more photons per pixel, also cutting down on noise levels.

In its documentation, LinX describes a 1×2 (aperture) camera module with two 5-megapixel sensors with 1.12 micron BSI (backside illumination) pixels, intended for a „super-slim handset with very limited space for the camera module.“ The camera is cheaper than the one found in the iPhone 5s, but delivers the same resolution due to its smaller pixels, so image quality is largely the same. Presumably Apple would use something a bit more cutting edge in its newer devices, but the product gives an idea of the type of technology LinX was working on.

Depth Mapping for 3D Models

With multiple apertures, LinX camera modules are able to calculate „ultra accurate sub pixel disparities“ between images, letting them create detailed depth maps of a scene. With depth information on a per-pixel basis along with RGB information, LinX cameras can create 3D point clouds of objects from a single frame or a complete 3D model by combining several frames captured from different angles.

Point mapping with data taken from a single photo
Outdoors, depth can be calculated even in direct sunlight or in complete darkness with flash lighting (either visible or infrared).

This is interesting technology because it can be used in several fascinating ways. Depth mapping like this can let people create 3D scans of objects from simple photographs taken at multiple angles, and it can also determine the size of an object that’s been photographed and its distance from another object (potentially useful for indoor mapping). It’s also possible to use the depth information to refocus an image, introducing a synthetic blur that can emulate different depths of field (a method described in one of LinX’s patents). In editing, the information could be used to remove and add objects to a photograph.

LinX Depth Mapping

LinX’s Arrays

LinX offers several different camera options, each of which have unique applications. A 1×2 aperture array with a color and mono sensor, for example, can create low quality depth maps, improve low light performance, and produce better images.

A 2×2 array can create high quality depth maps with higher dynamic range, improved low light performance, and general image quality.

A 1+1×2 array uses two small apertures to create a depth map that provides focusing input for the main aperture, leading to ultra fast focusing even in conditions with very low lighting.

Apple and LinX’s Technology

It’s not clear how and when Apple will incorporate LinX’s technology into its devices, but it’s possible we could see these types of camera improvements as soon as this year. Rumors have suggested Apple is looking into a major camera boost for the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, with new technology that could produce SLR quality images, and LinX’s multi-aperture lens systems could potentially accomplish that feat.

Apple’s iPhone is one of the most popular camera options in the world according to data from Flickr, which has led Apple to focus heavily on camera improvements over the years. Apple’s commitment to photo quality has continually led to iOS cameras that offer superior images compared competing smartphones, and the acquisition of LinX could put it even further ahead of the competition.

More detailed descriptions of LinX’s technology as well as additional comparison photos can be seen in a June PDF released alongside its latest products.




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A Look at LinX Camera Technology That Could Appear in Future iOS Devices

Apple Working On Project That Will ‘Give Tesla a Run for its Money’ Says Employee

Following last week’s news of a mysterious Apple-leased vehicle roaming the streets of Northern California, an Apple employee has given some details to Business Insider, suggesting Apple is working on a project that will „give Tesla a run for its money.“

After writing about how the van could be used for a self-driving car, we got an unsolicited email from an employee at Apple about „vehicle development“ at the company. […]

„Apple’s latest project is too exciting to pass up,“ the person said. „I think it will change the landscape and give Tesla a run for its money.“

According to the site’s source, who was verified to be an Apple employee, Tesla employees are „jumping ship“ and choosing to work at Apple because of this unidentified project.

Last week’s pictures unveiled a van that appeared to have multiple cameras on the top, similar to the vehicles Google uses for mapping. Given the van’s similarity to other mapping vehicles, rumors have suggested that it is likely for an unspecified mapping project. Apple has been working to improve Maps in recent months, and it’s possible the company is working on a feature that would compete with Google Street View.

Photo of Apple van via Claycord
Other speculation has ranged a bit more towards the fantastical, suggesting that Apple is perhaps working on a self-driving car, but this seems unlikely due to Apple’s tendency to focus on just a few products at a time. „We have zero issue coming up with things we want to do, said Tim Cook last January. „We must focus on the very few that deserve all our energy.“

As Business Insider suggests, one probable project that could pique the interest of former Tesla employees is CarPlay. CarPlay, which brings an iOS-style interface to in-car infotainment systems, is still very much in the early stages. In the future, CarPlay, which is being built directly into many cars, could expand to offer a Tesla-style feature set. With the Tesla iPhone app, Tesla owners can turn on heating, lock and unlock doors from afar, flash the lights, and more.

Deeper integration between iOS and in-car systems is also easily imaginable, given Apple’s desire to allow users to transition easily from device to device, as with its new „Continuity“ iOS 8/OS X Yosemite feature. In October, Apple CEO Tim Cook hinted at an expansion of Continuity and suggested it would be incredibly important going forward. „Use your imagination and think about where Continuity goes,“ he said.

Statements from Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, have directly contradicted this Apple employees suggestion that Tesla employees are tempted by what Apple has to offer. In a report outlining the many employees Tesla has poached from Apple, Musk told Bloomberg that „very few people“ had left Tesla for Apple, despite Apple’s offer of a $250,000 signing focus and 60 percent salary increase.




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Apple Working On Project That Will ‘Give Tesla a Run for its Money’ Says Employee

Mysterious Apple Car Spotted Roaming Bay Area Streets

There have been multiple sightings of a mysterious van with a strange apparatus on its roof in Concord, CA and, according to CBS affiliate KPIX 5, the car is leased to Apple. Bay Area blog Claycord posted photos of the Dodge Caravan earlier today.

Photo via Claycord
One possible use for the car could be for a mapping project, as the cameras on top of the vehicle are similar to other mapping cars. The Cupertino company has been planning on significantly improving its Maps application though, with plans for transit directions, improved points-of-interest data, indoor mapping and more. It would be likely that Apple would be prepping a feature similar to Google Street View or Bing StreetSide.

As noted by AppleInsider, Google’s Street View cars use a total of 15 5-megapixel cameras to stitch together its images. Apple’s leased minivan appears to have similar technology, with 12 cameras that could be used to stitch together images for a Street View-like picture.


Claycord noted that the Apple car looked similar to a self-driving Dodge Caravan spotted in New York in September 2014.Technology analyst Rob Enderle, who spoke to KPIX, also agreed that it’s a self-driving car rather than a mapping car.

“Too many cameras,” said Enderle. “It has cameras that are angled down at all four corners of the vehicle.”

However, Apple is not one of the six companies who have a permit for testing driverless cars. Enderle says it wouldn’t matter, noting that Apple could have a partnership with a manufacturer that allows them to lease and test a driverless car without a partner. An Apple spokesperson told KPIX that the company had no comment.




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Mysterious Apple Car Spotted Roaming Bay Area Streets