Almost four years ago, I was knocked out by a demo at CES by an Israeli startup named PrimeSense. (The promotional video at the top of this post dates from that period.) It was one of the first in-person experiences I’d had with a Minority Report-style user interface that let you control stuff on a TV screen by making gestures in the air. The company’s technology ended up being incorporated into the first version of Kinect, which Microsoft shipped as an Xbox add-on in late 2010.
And now PrimseSense is in the news again — probably for the last time, at least as a stand-alone enterprise. It’s been acquired by Apple, for a price reported by All Things D’s Mike Isaac and John Paczkowski to be around $360 million.
Trying to divine exactly what Apple is up to from the companies it buys is no cakewalk, but this much is true: When it buys them, it’s usually acquiring foundational technology that will help it go somewhere it’s already planning to go, only quicker. According to PrimeSense’s own site, here are the major categories where its tech can be put to use:
Of these, TV — in some form — feels like the most obvious area that might explain Apple’s interest in PrimeSense. That doesn’t mean that the Apple TV set we’ve had so much theorizing about over the last few years is going to become a reality any time soon, or that gesture-based input is sure to be one of its major aspects. But Apple thinking that this stuff and patents relating to it are worth a few hundred million dollars is intriguing in itself. It seems reasonable to expect that there’s a good chance that some sort of air gestures will wind up in some Apple product in the next few years.
Or maybe not. PrimeSense has been applying its computer science to other applications, too: Its Capri platform focuses on augmented-reality applications for phones and tablets, letting them see the world around them in 3D. Perhaps Apple wants to give the iPhone and iPad — or wearable devices yet to come — features that bleed into Google Glass-like territory.
Bottom line: Everything PrimeSense does is strikingly different from anything Apple has ever done in products it’s shipped. So even though we don’t know what Apple has in mind for its new acquisition, it’s hard to imagine that it won’t have a meaningful impact on one or more upcoming Apple products.