Is a Kinect-like gesture capability coming to Apple’s products? That question is being asked following reports that Apple is in the process of buying the Israeli company behind Microsoft’s Kinect controller.
The company, PrimeSense, developed the 3-dimensional technology employed in Kinect that allows users of Microsoft’s Xbox console to control the system through in-the-air gestures. Apple had been rumored for some time to be interested in PrimeSense, but now the Israeli business publication Calcalist has reported that the two companies have signed a purchase agreement for a price in the neighborhood of $345 million. No sources were given in the Calcalist story.
Apple has not commented on the report, and PrimeSense has issued a statement saying it does not comment on rumors.
In-the-air gestural control could be a major competitive advantage for a long-rumored Apple TV monitor, or for the next generation of the existing Apple TV box for streaming content from the Web. PrimeSense CEO Inon Beracha has said that the company is developing technology to change channels or adjust volume with just hand gestures.
But the possible uses go far beyond TVs. Computers, tablets, mobile devices, security systems, commercial robots, household appliances, vehicles and commercial displays like digital signs or billboards could all employ gestural interaction. In addition, such 3D sensing can also give devices or even vehicles the ability to discern nearby depth. This adds to their sensing capabilities, beyond simply being able to respond to changes in 2D space.
Apple, the innovator in so many fields, has been gliding on a path of incremental improvements for some time, and could use a new, exciting differentiator. But the purchase could also be a strategic one, intended to keep the technology out of the hands of Microsoft and other competitors. Microsoft has licensed PrimeSense technology for the Kinect, and the Israeli company’s tech is also used in iRobot’s Ava mobile robotics platform and the Xtion motion sensor from Asus.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, PrimeSense showed what it said was the world’s smallest 3-dimensional sensor, Capri, which is substantially smaller than previous versions and has better resolution.
The company showed Capri embedded in a Nexus 10 tablet, with an app that allowed a user to scan a space, import images of furniture, and then decorate the space with full fidelity to actual spatial relationships.
San Francisco startup Occipital has raised nearly $1.3 million on crowdsourcing site KickStarter for a 3D sensor for the iPad, and Leap Motion has released its gestural controller, which is embedded in certain Asus and HP computers.
Brad Shimmin, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, told us that the industry is “still in the early days” of 3D sensing, but Apple’s purpose in acquiring PrimeSense, if accurately reported, “sends a signal” to Microsoft and others that the company is going to play in this arena.