The iPhone gets ready for gestures

Can the $350 million PrimeSense buy finally put the Cupertino-based giant back on the innovation map? The simple answer is no, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

Apple has finally bought PrimeSense, the Israeli startup that powered the Xbox Kinect for Xbox 360, in a deal that has been on the cards since July this year. The $US350 million price tag is pretty irrelevant for Apple, given its deep pockets. The real interest lies in just how Apple decides to leverage PrimeSense’s speciality in 3D sensing technology to its advantage.

Apple has made 15 buys in fiscal 2013 but can PrimeSense be the one that finally puts the Cupertino-based giant back on the innovation map? The simple answer to that is no, but that doesn’t mean the acquisition isn’t important.

The new iPhone launch and the iPad refresh are both now out of the way, and while its litigation waltz with Samsung continues to deliver its share of pleasure and pain, Apple just can’t shake its detractors when it comes to innovation, or lack thereof.

It’s bevy of devices - iPhones and iPads- that once captivated consumers have seemingly run out of steam. The competition has wised up and maintaining the leading edge is hard when you are running out of ways to squeeze the existing form factors to the maximum.

Apple CEO Tim Cook is probably used to getting pilloried for the lack of innovation at Apple but just how much sleep he’s losing on it is debatable. Buying PrimeSense is pretty much business as usual for Cook.

However, the innovation potential of PrimeSense's technology, which gives digital devices the ability to observe a scene in three dimensions, has implications on Apple’s ambitions to make its presence felt not just in the living room but also open a lot of other doors.

Forrester Research analyst J.P Gownder says that the motion-sensing and depth/colour sensing technology could play a role in Apple’s development of its long-rumoured television set and enhance its existing Apple TV set top offering. The same tech could also potentially be transposed onto the wearable space if and when Apple is ready to enter that space.

Apple certainly doesn’t seem to be in a hurry on that front but Gownder points out that PrimeSense’s latest 3D sensor, the Capri, highlights how the miniaturisation of the sensors opens a whole new window of opportunity.

 “While often seen as a motion-sensing technology, PrimeSense is at base a depth – and colour – perception technology that could potentially someday be used to recognise people – or to help the blind navigate the streets,” Gownder said. 

Another interesting scenario, according to Gownder, is the role PrimeSense’s sensors could play in the e-commerce space. Gownder suggests, citing a report, that sensing technologies could be used by companies to offer mass customised clothing and furniture.

“Imagine scanning your house – or your body – to receive custom-build cabinets or bespoke clothing shipped to you in short order,” Gownder says.

“PrimeSense technology can already empower these mass customised scenarios.”

So, the Capri might have a role to play in the Apple’s retail strategy as well. However, the immediate focus is likely to hover around the upgrade of Apple’s set top box and its further aspirations to make an impact in our living rooms. 

As respected columnist and the co-author of Naked Conversations, Shel Israel points out in his piece in Forbes, the beauty of sensor technology is the ability it provides devices to understand the needs of the end users. It’s an understanding that moves beyond simple tactile input to gestures and the tracking of physiological markers.

“Imagine a device that watches you as you watch it. It can see how your heart throbs when certain shows, celebrities or sporting events go on the air. Based on that, it will be able to customise what content it offers up to you,” Israel says in his post.

Leaving Apple’s TV ambitions aside, chips like Capri could easily find a home on future iOS or Mac devices and the real driver for the integration will be PrimeSense’s gesture-based user interface.

Samsung is already in this space with Smart Interaction and outfits like Leapmotion, and the XBox Kinect, are breaking in the technology in the consumer space. Just how quickly Apple pivots from acquisition to application remains to be seen but it could happen sooner rather than later.

Apple bought mobile and network security company AuthenTec Inc in July 2012 and the TouchID fingerprint sensor was ready for the iPhone 5s by September 2013. That’s a pretty quick turnaround and if the biometric play is any indicator then gesture control might be featuring in the next iPhone.

While duplicating and refining existing features might not be innovation in the strictest sense of the word, it’s exactly the template Apple’s keen to follow when it comes to maintaining its margins. Tim Cook’s challenge isn’t product innovation it’s more a race to enhance Apple’s cash cows – the iPhone and the iPad.

PrimeSense fits into that narrative quite well.

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