News Software, acquisitions and funding, apple, Internet, Kinect, Mergers, News, Software, Technology — November 25, 2013 15:19 — 0 Comments
Why did Apple buy PrimeSense? For a key technology it’ll deploy within a year
Apple’s confirmation that it has bought the Israeli company which provided the technology for the first Kinect sensors gives many clues to its importance
That Apple is paying $350m for PrimeSense, the Israeli technology company, suggests that the Israeli company’s systems will be a key technology for the company. It really wants it for something – and fast.
The amount paid is comparable with the $356m that Apple laid out in July 2012 to buy the fingerprint recognition company Authentec – whose scanning technology was incorporated into the iPhone 5S, released in September 2013 – and the $390m paid in December 2011 for Anobit, another Israeli company, which specialises in flash memory technologies.
The Authentec technology must have been built into the phone rapidly, because the typical lead time for a phone design is at least a year, and the incorporation of fingerprint scanning would have required extensive testing. Apple was almost certainly working with Authentec ahead of the acquisition, but seems to have seen its technology as so important it had to own everything about it.
Similarly, Anobit’s specialism, of making flash memory (used in almost every Apple product, including its computers) function better, seems to have triggered a decision by the Cupertino company to snap it up. The results aren’t as visible as a fingerprint scanner, but it seems a certainty that the expertise that Anobit had is being applied across the product range.
The price is high
Other acquisitions by Apple (there’s a list at Wikipedia) show that about $250m seems to be the “key technology” tipping point: PA Semi (April 2008, $278m), the semiconductor maker, whose expertise has been used to build the iPhone and iPad CPUs; Quattro Wireless (January 2010, $275m) is in mobile advertising (where Apple has so far flopped, but thought it would be important); C3 Technologies (August 2011, $267m) provides 3D mapping, which was used a year later in Apple’s Maps; and since then Authentec and now PrimeSense.
And as a counterpoint, Apple reportedly refused to buy another Israeli company, the travel app Waze, for around $500m earlier this year (the two companies haven’t confirmed that the talks took place, but rumours in that sector tend to be reliable). Instead, Google bought it for $1.3bn - which was seen as a huge victory for Google, and loss for Apple. Except Apple seems to have been satisfied with the progress it was making with maps; while to Google, getting the data about vehicle drivers is far more valuable than it is to Apple. Waze’s business model of shared information is a better fit with Google than its map data was to Apple.
So PrimeSense is important, and Apple wants to use its technology soon. Its 3D sensors have a range of up to 3.5 metres – about the depth of the typical living room, or the sort of distance most people sit from a TV set – and were used in the original Microsoft Kinect add-on for Xbox. (For the second-generation Kinect, Microsoft has moved to a different supplier – which it acquired.)
We know what the original Kinect could do: it could detect faces, movements, people and map them all in 3D space. So what is Apple interested in doing around that?
What’s on – TV?
The rumours of a stand-along Apple TV set will naturally aggregate around this: rumours that Apple is working on a TV set have been around for a colossally long time. February 2009 is the earliest confirmed sighting of financial analyst Gene Munster forecasting one. The idea that Apple would make TV sets though, with their low replacement rate (10% per year, compared to 50% per year in smartphones) and the problems of persuading people to buy a premium product just don’t seem to hold together.
Yet something that works like the Kinect, which can sense gestures, or identify people, might make sense in the living room if paired with the existing Apple TV set-top box; it could be an optional add-on just like the first Kinect was.
One point to note about PrimeSense’s sensors: they’re quite large. An FAQ page describes some of their limitations, especially relating to outdoor use:
Different lighting conditions can affect the sensor’s depth acquisition abilities. In general, the PrimeSense Sensor is designed for indoor use and will work less optimally in direct sunlight.
That seems to rule out use in phones when you’re out and about, for example. It can “see” you if you are standing still (“Yes, the sensor is not motion based. A full depth map is provided for each frame. The depth maps are standalone and do not carry forward information from previous frames.”) The optimal distance is 38cm (slightly more than a foot – and so slightly longer than typical reading distances of phones or tablets).
View from a mobile
There is already a mobile application - the “Capri” sensor can be embedded into smartphones and tablets, and “empowers your mobile device with a whole new level of understanding by enabling it to see the world in 3D”.
As the page explains, “mobile devices powered with 3D sensors allow you to immersively interact with your surroundings and offer new amazing capabilities. You now have the ability to see any environment in 3D providing a new level of understanding and awareness and even blurring between the real and virtual worlds.” That’s the Capri, an embedded sensor which uses a system-on-a-chip (SoC) design which the company says makes it “ideal for embedding in consumer electronics devices such as tablets, TVs, PCs, All –in-One PCs, , laptops, mobile phones, consumer robotics and more.”
The question is, what would Apple want with this?
The key is not to overthink it. Authentec does fingerprints; Apple used it for fingerprints. PA Semi makes chips; Apple’s using it to make chips. C3 does mapping; Apple’s using it for mapping. And so on. If PrimeSense offers embedded sensors which generate indoor real-time maps of the space around them, that’s where Apple has seen a space for development.
With Microsoft and Sony both bidding for control of the living room, and particularly aiming to be the channel to your TV set, and Google making a fresh effort after the failure of Google TV with the Chromecast dongle to become a player in the same space – not to mention other participants such as Roku – it looks as though Apple has decided that the time is ripe to get into the set-top box business in earnest, and to provide a new way of controlling it. Perhaps Apple TV is going to cease being a hobby – finally. (In which case perhaps we can hope that Apple will also offer iPlayer, ITV Player and 4OD apps – something that has been sorely missing from the Apple TV for Britons.)
So in one sense it’s simple: Apple’s buying PrimeSense because it wants its technology exclusively, in a hurry, for a key product. But quite what that product is, and what it’s going to do, will take about a year to be revealed.
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