3D Mac in­ter­faces

Gary Mar­shall goes pan­ning in the river of ru­mour for nuggets of knowl­edge

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In fic­tion, there’s a de­vice called Chekhov’s Gun: if you say in chap­ter one that there’s a gun in the room, Chekhov wrote, “it ab­so­lutely must go off.” There’s a sim­i­lar thing with Ap­ple ac­qui­si­tions. If Ap­ple buys it, it’ll ab­so­lutely use it. And that brings us to PrimeSense, the Is­raeli 3D sen­sor firm Ap­ple ac­quired in 2013.

You might not know the com­pany, but you know the Kinect mo­tion sen­sor it helped de­velop for Mir­cosoft. It makes a range of 3D sen­sors, and those sen­sors can de­tect move­ment not just for games, but for any ap­pli­ca­tion that needs to know what some­body’s do­ing. For ex­am­ple, one PrimeSense-pow­ered sys­tem knows which ce­real a shop­per is reach­ing for on a shelf and dis­plays ap­pro­pri­ate ad­ver­tis­ing or of­fers on a nearby iPad (iBea­con-es­que?).

The re­ally in­ter­est­ing thing about PrimeSense is that as its sen­sors have be­come smarter, they’ve also be­come smaller and much, much cheaper. As one pun­dit put it: “What was re­cently the size of a gui­tar case and the cost of a Smart car, will soon be about the size of a stick of gum.” Cheap enough and small enough to stick in an Ap­ple TV?

We know the Ap­ple TV is be­ing po­si­tioned as a HomeKit hub. Imag­ine if its in­ter­face wasn’t through the re­mote, but through a com­bi­na­tion of Siri and PrimeSense sen­sors. That ties in quite neatly with US Patent No. 8,933,876, in which Ap­ple de­tails “three di­men­sional user in­ter­face ses­sion con­trol” – that is, con­trol­ling a de­vice by wav­ing and point­ing. That de­vice might be your Ap­ple TV, or your iMac. Or it might be a sen­sor in your house that con­nects to them via HomeKit.

That’s not all. In Patent No. 8,959,013, Ap­ple filed de­tails of us­ing 3D sen­sors to make a vir­tual key­board on any sur­face based on an ex­ist­ing PrimeSense patent. And in Patent No. 8,514,221 it de­scribed a graph­i­cal in­ter­face that en­abled users to ma­nip­u­late 3D ob­jects us­ing three di­men­sional ges­tures above what looks an aw­ful lot like an iPad. Think pinch­ing and pulling but in three di­men­sions in­stead of two.

Re­mem­ber Tim Cook’s quote? “We be­lieve that we need to own and con­trol the pri­mary tech­nolo­gies be­hind the prod­ucts we make.” Ap­ple filed its 3D patent in 2011. It bought PrimeSense two years later. 3D in­put looks aw­fully like a Chekhov’s Gun to us.

Ap­ple’s patent de­scribes how a de­vice could use a com­bi­na­tion of mo­tion track­ing and 3D mod­el­ling to re­spond to peo­ple’s move­ment.

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