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Apple Gets Into the 3D Sensor Game

From Kinect technology to robotic navigation, Apple has a few surprises to come in the near future.

Apple Gets Into the 3D Sensor Game

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Apple may have a new tool in its armory, reportedly having acquired PrimeSense, which makes chips for three-dimensional machine vision and gesture-based technology.

Apple is said to have paid US$345 million for the company. News of the sale first emerged in the Calcalist financial newspaper in Israel, where PrimeSense is based.

Reports vary as to whether the deal is done or will close by the end of this week.

PrimeSense has raised $85 million in venture capital from funds including Canaan Partners Global, Gemini Israel, and Genesis Partners, according to Calcalist. Applewas interested in buying PrimeSense earlier this year, according to rumors that surfaced in July.

Kinect Tech

PrimeSense is perhaps best known as the company behind the technology that enabled Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect. The sensing technology allows the game console to view a scene in three dimensions, so players can control a game using their body and physical movements.

“The clear thing [Apple is] moving to is a more gesture-based interface.” Rob enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told MacNewsWorld. “They want to make sure they’ve got some of the IP locked up so they can do this before Samsung or somebody else locks them out.”

Robot Navigation

PrimeSense’s technology is also used in iRobot’s mobile robotics platform, Ava. The system is aimed at accelerating patient treatment in hospitals and healthcare facilities. It uses PrimeSense sensors for navigation, and to view the larger environment so it can detect and interact with people.

“There are three key areas of innovation in mobile devices — that is, user interfaces, form factor, and smart applications using sensors to break down the digital divide,” said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“Acquiring PrimeSense speaks to both the UIs and the potential around sensors — but even beyond mobile, using sensors is also a critical part of enabling the Internet of Things/Internet of Everything,” he told MacNewsWorld. “So, sensor technology is likely to be critical not only to the devices Apple makes today, but almost any other solutions they are considering for the future.”

Apple likely is buying PrimeSense to bolster the smart TV it’s rumored to be working on, according to the Calcalist report, which noted that PrimeSense has been probing TV integration for its technology as far back as January 2011.

Yet both PrimeSense and a third-party company have recently pushed into the market for mobile 3D scanning devices, offering another hint as to what else Apple might do with the technology should a deal go through.

3D Scanning

An iPad peripheral called the “Structure Sensor” aims to capture objects and spacesin three dimensions for uses such as computer-aided design and 3D printing. The device uses the same PrimeSense sensor protocols as in the Kinect. The company behind the Structure Sensor KickStarter project hoped to raise $100,000, but actually received almost $1.3 million.

Earlier this month, PrimeSense teamed up with 3D Systems to create the Sense 3D scanner, which is billed as the first such scanner with sub-millimeter accuracy that’s targeted toward consumers.

“If you can enable the device to sense information about the user and the environment, you can not only improve the user experience, but enable entirely new usage models,” Tirias Research’s McGregor suggested.

“What if my device could tell me about or even warn me about my surroundings when I’m not even looking?” he wondered.

“The 3D imaging potential is really cool,” McGregor continued. “Several companies are working on the ability to create 3D models of objects and the environment with just a quick and simple scan using a smartphone. Imagine if you could quickly scan an object and then print it out on a 3D printer in any size that you wish. The applications are almost unlimited.”