POV: Apple Buys PrimeSense

MINDSHARE POINT OF VIEW – Apple has bought the Israeli tech company that worked with Microsoft on the product that became Kinect. PrimeSense are specialists in motion tracking and gesture based controls. Apple has been typically quiet on the matter, saying only that “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans”; this has not stopped tech blogs and commentators from speculating on both the price tag (somewhere in the region of $300m) and the reasons for the purchase.

Every move that Apple makes is pored over for meaning and this deal is no different. The work that PrimeSense did with Microsoft on Kinect, whilst not ground-breaking, certainly made a huge impact on the consumer market – it was the fastest selling ever consumer tech device and brought to the home technology previously only found in labs and R&D facilities – so expectations are high about what Apple might do with it. There seem to be three main possibilities for how Apple will use the technology and talent it has just acquired: entertainment, mapping and the internet of things.

The entertainment angle is an obvious one: rumours have been rife for years that Apple will make a fully-fledged Smart TV, rather than just its current set-top box which delivers iTunes. Building in the next generation of motion detecting technology could be a key part of this effort. There are suggestions that Apple might take on Microsoft and Sony in the consoles wars as another way of becoming the centre of the modern living room, but that is a very expensive game in terms of investment (not that Apple is short of cash).
Another avenue would be for Apple to make use of PrimeSense’s more recent developments, many of which apparently surround mapping. Its chips are already being used to map three-dimensional spaces and this would chime with another recent Apple purchase of an indoor GPS company. Apple has bet big on maps; its decision to create its own maps app and ditch Google was a PR disaster. It appears to have powered through these issues now and so it would make sense to continue to beef up its capabilities. After all the founder of Waze (a mapping app bought by Google) has described maps being for mobile what search is to the web.

The final route being suggested is also based on PrimeSense’s new range of sensors which map 3D spaces, but in using these to connect together untold consumer devices. These might allow you to take a photo of an old kitchen appliance so that a system could then suggest one that would fit the same space. Or even chips that recognise your friends when they arrive at your front door or warn you if you put too little flour in a recipe. This may sound too futuristic, but as Kinect demonstrated, the future is often much nearer than we realise.

It is impossible to know why Apple has bought PrimeSense, but it’s unlikely to just be an acq-hire aimed at bringing in talent. Apple built its business focusing its resources on particular issues and areas of consumer life; it would be strange if that has changed now. It is easy to see how this company might help Apple bring its mythical TV to reality, but it’s also not much harder to see how it might help it take its map product to the next level.  In fact, when you consider that Apple is the company that brought existing touch technology to the mass market, it’s easy to imagine that Apple might bring the next generation of PrimeSense’s technology to everything it does.