For the second time this year, rumours are circulating that Apple is set to buy PrimeSense, the Israeli company behind the 3D technology used in Microsoft's Kinect gaming system. According to a report in Israeli business daily Calcalist, the two companies have already signed a deal, and the sale, said to be worth in the region of $345m, will be announced officially at the end of the month.
Apple had no comment on the report, while PrimeSense issued a statement saying that the company "does not comment on what any of our partners, customers or potential customers are doing and we do not relate to rumours or recycled rumours".
The 'recycled' part of the statement refers to the speculation that was rampant last summer that Apple and PrimeSense were close to a deal. Then, Apple was said to have offered $280m for the company — prompting a company insider to deny the scuttlebutt with the claim that PrimeSense was "worth 10 times" what Apple was offering.
While the $345m Apple is reportedly paying for PrimeSense this time round is significantly more than its previous rumoured offer, the sum falls rather short of the valuation given the company by our source.
But there's no denying that PrimeSense has just what Apple needs right now — to give it an edge in the increasingly competitive tablet and set-top box markets.
For years, Apple TV's $99 set-top box was considered by many to be the gold standard of web-connected television peripherals, allowing users to subscribe to dozens of online TV services, as well as watch TV shows and movies via the iTunes store. Google recently introduced Chromecast, which can do many of the same things Apple TV does, for a third of the price.
Right now, the content accessible on Chromecast is more limited than what you get with Apple TV, and it doesn't have all the capabilities that Apple TV does — yet. But in the race between Apple and Google, it's likely that the latter company will keep adding features and capabilities to Chromecast, giving Apple yet another hardware headache.
That's where PrimeSense comes in: Apple recently took out patents on a method of presenting 3D content on devices without the need for glasses, enabling a device to recognise 3D gestures using a sensor.
PrimeSense, of course, is an old hand at this. Among the features it could bring to Apple TV are the ability to change channels, volume, services etc using gestures, with a high level of sensitivity that will allow the device to distinguish between gestures aimed at the set-top box, and those that are not.
PrimeSense does this via its 'light coding' method, which codes a scene with light from the near-infrared spectrum and interprets actions based on where the activity takes place.
In a 2010 interview, PrimeSense CEO Inon Beracha said that "with the devices we are developing for home entertainment systems, users will be able to change channels or adjust volume with just hand gestures".
Other uses could include interactive systems for video communications, security systems, digital signage, air conditioning, touchscreens and many others, he said. Adding this kind of technology would give Apple a new edge over its competitors.
Ditto for tablets: that business is getting more competitive, with more Android tablets from different manufacturers come out with advanced features. The iPad is still the people's choice (to judge from the lines at Apple Stores when the iPad Air was introduced last month) — but nothing is forever. 3D could give the iPad the killer feature it needs to re-distinguish itself from the pack.
And there is already a third-party peripheral 3D sensor for the iPad; if the idea works well in a peripheral, it would be even better onboard, integrated into the OS and allowing developers to build 3D interaction into all of their apps.
PrimeSense is ready for the iPad as well; at CES this year, the company introduced Capri, which it claims is world's smallest 3D sensor, designed to be used as an embedded 3D product for, according to the company, "consumer electronics devices such as tablets, TVs, PCs, all-in-one PCs, laptops, mobile phones, consumer robotics and more".
In fact, PrimeSense demonstrated Capri's versatility on a tablet last May, when it installed one on a Nexus 10 tablet, allowing friends from the OpenNI 3D sensing development community to try out its 3D tablet apps.
For $345m, PrimeSense might just be tempted to switch that Google product with its Apple competitor. And for Apple, preventing Capri from being installed on more Nexus or other Android tablets might be a good enough reason to try to make sure that the "recycled buyout rumour" is the real thing, this time.