Apple may be planning Kinect-style controls for its rumored TV

xbox-one-kinect-trackingSo, the rumors aren’t true, after all. Not long after news swirled across tech circles that Apple would be purchasing PrimeSense, the Israeli company behind Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensor technology, the whole thing was reportedly shot down. Still, in spite of there being no concrete deal, the very prospect of Apple getting its hands on that kind of technology leads to some intriguing possibilities.

For the better part of two years, there have been incessant rumors suggesting Apple is on the verge of launching its own flat-panel TV, or something like new Apple TV hardware or a streaming service that would shake up the TV industry. Siri has been a key pillar of iOS, but has yet to make it over to Mac OS X or the Apple TV, and gesture control tends to be something third-party developers tack on to those operating systems.

Apple engineers had visited PrimesSense earlier this month and spent a whole day there, though the nature of that meeting is anyone’s guess. Was it to finalize details of a future acquisition or was it about Apple licensing PrimeSense’s technology for existing and future products?

The future product or service in question here would seem to be this mythical TV game-changer that Apple is ostensibly working on. Could that be a reason why a newer Apple TV hasn’t been launched yet this year? Or are gesture control, facial recognition and voice recognition all part of the final major spokes Cupertino is looking to include in its rumored reinvention of the TV wheel?

TV manufacturers have already experimented with some of those things, but they’ve either been crude prototypes or forgettable ancillary features that were meant to augment and simplify the viewing experience. Microsoft is betting big that Kinect on the Xbox One will do just that, which explains why the powers that be at Redmond will stuff the sensor in the box when it hits retail this fall.

Just today, PC Magazine reported that Intel closed a deal to acquire Omek Interactive, another Israeli startup that develops middleware for 3D cameras that can recognize gestures and track motion. Intel didn’t disclose financial terms of the deal, nor did it comment on what the technology might be used for. The timing suggests that this might have something to do with the company’s upcoming set top box, which is said to have a camera as part of its design.

Even with the rumor proven untrue, Apple and PrimeSense will be in the spotlight because of Intel’s acquisition and the latter’s connection to Kinect. PrimeSense doesn’t have to sell itself to the highest bidder, but it could potentially sign exclusive licensing agreements with Apple to give them a missing piece of the puzzle.

Having visited PrimeSense in Israel on a tech junket in October, the news that there was no deal didn’t come as a surprise. During my visit, the developers I spoke with appeared keen on maintaining their independence because they wanted to keep pushing the boundaries of what their technology was capable of. Interestingly, voice and gesture-based control of a TV interface was part of the presentation, but a great deal of time was also spent on the possibility of revolutionizing online apparel shopping by being able to see yourself in different outfits without having to be in a retail store to try them on.

Apple has no vested interest (at least that we know of) in shopping for clothes, but we also don’t know if paying PrimeSense a visit was part of a shopping expedition for tech assets. Apple already likes that you can talk to your phone, so being able to talk to a box or TV and wave your hands in front of it is probably an appealing mix, but is it because they want to do something different, or because others are already doing it?

Or maybe it’s not motion-tracking they’re after, but eye-tracking scenarios they’re looking into as part of a long-term plan. And the long shot — that Apple is considering getting into the gaming space in some capacity (we don’t buy that one). Another possibility is face recognition. Intel’s new box will apparently offer different user profiles, which might be based on the camera recognizing the person’s face. How convenient, since Kinect on the Xbox One will also do the very same thing.

What seems likely here is that Apple is planning something big that might include the kind of stuff PrimeSense does, but isn’t based around it. If Cupertino does make a TV, then the Apple TV interface will naturally be the software people look at on it, but whether they actually wave their hands or do the ‘running man’ in front of it is still anyone’s guess.

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