Apple aims to catch up in 3D sensing with acquisition of PrimeSense

Apple has confirmed that it has completed its acquisition of PrimeSense, the Israel startup that provided motion-sensing chips for the original Microsoft Kinect game hardware, according to published reports.

The deal shows that motion-sensing technology is still hot, both in the traditional PC business and in mobile devices. With this deal, Apple can catch up with rivals such as Microsoft and Intel.

AllThingsD and Sunday by Globes reported that the purchase price was around $360 million. Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet confirmed the PrimeSense deal to AllThingsD. She added, “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.”

The deal leaked earlier and was reportedly in the works for months. PrimeSense made the 3D-depth camera sensor chips in Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing system for the Xbox 360 in 2010. That became a huge hit, but now PrimeSense’s next-generation 3D sensors, dubbed Capri, can fit into devices that are 10 times smaller than the current generation of 3D-sensor devices. Capri is so tiny that the finished board is smaller than a stick of chewing gum.

The new sensor works like the previous one, sensing both depth and color in a three- dimensional space. It can identify people and their body properties, movements, and gestures. It can distinguish objects such as furniture and sense the location of the walls and floor. It uses near-infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye. It sends the light out and then uses an image sensor to read the light that returns from the 3D space to the camera.

With Capri, PrimeSense used more advanced manufacturing technology to make the chip smaller, and it improved its algorithms, which include multi-modal 3D sensing. The middleware, or the software that interprets the 3D sensing data, used to run on a powerful computer or game console. Now the processing takes place on the tiny ARM- based processor on the Capri board.

Meanwhile, Microsoft now uses a different sensor technology for its newest version of Kinect for the Xbox One game console. Intel is also moving fast into what it calls “perceptual computing,” which combine a variety of technologies such as motion sensing, eye-tracking, voice recognition, and face recognition. Intel plans to launch perceptual computing with mainstream PCs in 2014.

PrimeSense had raised around $80 million in funding from Silver Lake Sumeru, Canaan Partners, Gemini Israel, and Genesis Partners.

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