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What Apple’s acquisition of Primesense motion detection means for gesture-based TV

The smart TV we’ve all dreamed of hasn’t happened yet. SamsungLG, and Sony have used their computer and TV chops to try and crack the code for years. So has Microsoft with its Xbox and Google with Google TV. Everyone wants to control our TVs, but nobody seems to know how to do it right. Apple has dipped a toe in HD waters for years with Apple TV, but persistent rumors of an actual iTV cooking somewhere in Cupertino leave home theater enthusiasts hopeful. Steve Jobs admitted as much when he told biographer Walter Isaacson that he “finally cracked” the TV. Perhaps cracking the TV code was realizing that he was already holding the answer: It just needs to be a giant 55-inch iPad you can control from your couch.

And Apple might have just acquired the technology it needs to make it happen.

On Monday, Apple purchased the Israeli firm, PrimeSense – the same company that developed the technology used in Microsoft’s first-generation Kinect. This deal has been rumored since back in July, giving the tech world plenty of time to exercise its imagination over what Apple would do with PrimeSense’s gesture recognition expertise. While some have speculated that gesture control could be implemented into Apple’s mobile devices and computers (which, frankly, seems highly unlikely), we’re convinced Apple’s acquisition is centered exclusively around its television.

Just imagine it.

Currently, using gesture-control systems is not unlike doing the sprinkler dance.

We are a society of couch potatoes, and the answer to keeping us on our asses is gesture control. The iPad’s touchscreen makes navigating it and controlling it easy and intuitive, but Apple’s challenge is bringing that same ease to a screen you can’t touch. If Apple can perfect gesture control technology, it could conceivably make controlling its TV as easy as swiping, touching, pinching, and spreading the air in front of our faces. It would turn your second screen into your first screen. And it would seamlessly work with your entire Apple ecosystem. Sound exciting? You bet it is. 

Bringing gesture control to such a level is going to be a considerable challenge, though. Recently, Samsung and Microsoft (both consumer electronics titans with big-time R&D resources) have been leading the charge in gesture-control development, and while both have made strides in the right direction, the technology remains far from where we imagine it. Having reviewed Samsung’s flagship TVs with this technology built-in, I’ve experienced it firsthand. Currently, using gesture-control systems is not unlike doing the sprinkler dance. There’s a lot of waving involved, a lot of moving around and standing in just the right place, and a lot of repeating gestures in an effort to get recognized by the cameras. You can see the problem here: People want to watch TV, not Jazzercise.

But if any company could take gesture control to the futuristic level we’ve had ingrained in our minds by sci-fi movies and TV shows, it’s Apple. Imagine barely having to lift a hand and having your TV recognize you wanted its attention; imagine flicking your wrist, not your entire arm, and moving through pages of apps. Imagine all of your media right in front of your face, instantly available at your command; imagine never having to use a cable or satellite box again because all of your media could be streamed via the Internet. This is what Apple’s TV will be all about, and why we’ve been hearing about it for years, but have seen nothing.

Samsung Gesture Control

You could argue that simply blowing up iOS for use on a TV is too obvious an idea. But Apple’s best successes have often been centered around simple ideas that everyone could have imagined, but few could execute with the same grace.

The iPad was the most obvious idea ever: It’s a big iPhone. But none of us understood it until we used it. That’s because Apple has a way of exercising patience and mastering perfection while others zealously leap into uncharted territory and crank out half-baked ideas in the name of innovation. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Apple’s flavor of gesture control looked exactly like what Samsung and Microsoft offer today, but worked as well as the Apple devices we use today. Touchscreens existed before the iPhone, but none felt so precise or responsive as the capacitive touch Apple pushed into the mainstream.

If Apple can develop a Kinect-like camera system that can see more precisely than Microsoft’s or Samsung’s, and detect small hand movements or eyes, it could end the arm flapping and hand waving that dominates smart TV interaction today. Add in a smarter Siri with some good microphone tech and you wouldn’t have to type, because you could just speak your letters and words, and have them appear on screen. Of course, if you prefer a more old-school control experience, you could just grab your favorite iOS device. Everything you did on your iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone could be mirrored exactly on your TV screen. As usual, Apple would ask developers to write apps specifically for the iTV, but its iPad and iPhone apps could be installed on it as well. Out of the box, it would have more than a million apps.

Apple can’t come to market with a TV as we know it because there is no working blueprint yet. 

But that’s not all. Apple could give its TV a life-size Retina display that matches or bests 4K Ultra HD. Developers would only need to scale up the resolution of their apps and adapt them for a 16:9 aspect ratio, and the experience everyone is already used to would soon be up on their walls, spread out across 55 or 65 glorious diagonal inches of Apple TV awesome. 

Primesense could give Apple the ability to succeed where all others have failed in the world of Smart, connected televisions. It has the opportunity to produce a TV that “just works.” If Apple were to give its TV the processing power and interface it gives its iPads, then a whole new world could open up for its television. You could check your email like you do on your iPad, browse the Web like you do on your iPad, order food like you do on your iPad. There’s just one thing that prevents Apple from doing that right now: gesture control that actually works. As soon as Apple is able to produce the gesture accuracy it needs, you’ll see a real Apple TV.

Look, we’ve all been waiting anxiously for this TV to materialize, and it makes sense that we’d be excited – Apple makes awesome stuff. But we’ve been waiting this long for a reason, and it isn’t because Apple is having trouble realizing an iTV as we have dreamt it – it isn’t plagued with technical difficulties getting its Apple TV stuffed inside a 55-inch flat screen or having trouble sealing up content deals. Apple can’t come to market with a TV as we know it because there is no working blueprint yet. No one has made a TV interface we enjoy using, or one that people would line up to buy. Apple will. Apple doesn’t do Band-Aid technology. It isn’t going to try to patch up all the problems the old guard have created. It is going to do with its TV what it has always done with its products: redefine familiar technology and the way we use in a way that will have people parking their trucks outside Apple stores to get one.

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