This week, Apple confirmed the longstanding rumors that the company has agreed to acquire PrimeSense, the Israeli company that invented the technology behind the original Kinect for Xbox 360. All of Apple's moves are scrutinized closely, but this one is worth paying closer attention to than most.
The PrimeSense technology was astounding when it was first incorporated into the Kinect. This was not only because of what it could do — see you in 3D and model your skeletal structure as it observed you moving in physical space — but also because of how the company did it. Instead of imitating the $10,000 military-grade hardware of its predecessors, the company insisted on using off-the-shelf technology, whether hardware or software, so that the cost to deploy the solution would be laughably low, compared with prior imaging solutions. That's what made Microsoft so interested — Microsoft's own motion-sensing engineering group was years away from a homegrown Kinect experience and saw a chance to jump ahead of the market with PrimeSense. And jump it did, selling by our estimate more than 30 million cameras around the world, boosting sales of the Xbox 360 console even after it was already nearly five years old.
Now that Microsoft has moved beyond PrimeSense with the Xbox One and Apple has swooped in to buy the company, it will be tempting to think that Apple wants the technology so that it can finally make a successful play for the living room, something it has repeatedly failed to do with Apple TV. Certainly, the Primesense tech works great in the living room, and Apple would be foolish not to try it out there.
If you have followed PrimeSense, however, you know that its most recent advances have been in miniaturizing even further its system on a chip — also called SOC — for 3D sensing. If early indications are true, PrimeSense 3D sensing will soon be coming to a mobile phone near you. More specifically, the iPhone 6 could be the first mobile phone with true 3D vision — giving Apple real, meaningful leadership in handsets.
I'm not talking about the gesture recognition available in some Samsung phones, but a 3D sensing tool that you could use to snap an image of people, objects, or things in motion to assess their size, structure, and even something about their mass. It sounds technical, but a phone with that capability could perhaps picture your recently expired refrigerator, for example, and be able to immediately recommend new refrigerators that would fill the exact same space, not to mention match the colors in the rest of your kitchen. That's a phone Apple and its developers could have a lot of fun with.
But once you get the idea that 3D environmental sensing is more than just a gesture interaction tool — and when you realize that PrimeSense's SOC will be so small and cheap that it could be deployed broadly — that's when you realize that Apple would be uniquely positioned to fill your world with sensors. Far beyond the living room and even beyond your mobile phone, that would mean sensors in your kitchen, in your hallways, at your doorway, in your garage, and on and inside your car — sensors that Apple developers would then spend the next five years learning how to make come alive — to alert you to the arrival of good friends you haven't seen in a long time or to remind you that you only put two cups of flour into the cake batter instead of the three cups the recipe called for.
What's exciting about the combination of Apple's powerful digital platform and PrimeSense's powerful, small, and cheap sensors is that it puts the right kind of power in the hands of the right company: an Apple eager to show that it still has the magical qualities that made the iPhone and the iPad such icons of innovation success.