3D Imaging Coming to the iPhone?

Apple’s acquisition of PrimeSense promises radical changes. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

The world of Apple products suddenly got a lot deeper, as in 3D.

Apple Inc. officially confirmed on Sunday that it had acquired PrimeSense; sources say Apple spent around $360 million to purchase the Israeli 3D sensing technology company.

Founded in 2005 and based in Tel Aviv, PrimeSense scored big in 2010 with its Kinect device, a motion-sensing companion to Microsoft's Xbox 360 video game console that detects the motions of players and translates that into gameplay on the Xbox.

The company's 3D sensing technology has been used in interactive displays for PC and mobile, and has spread to other industries, including retail, health care and robotics.

PrimeSense's technology can scan, analyze and calculate images to create highly realistic 3D models, and a look at Apple's patent portfolio suggest it has already thought of many applications for this kind of 3D imagery.

One Apple patent describes a system involving multiple sensors and cameras that would allow an iPhone or iPad to capture 3D images. One sensor would capture a polarizing image, while two other sensors would capture two different non-polarizing images, and Apple's system would intelligently combine the images into a 3D composite. Apple and PrimeSense could build cameras and sensors that could accurately capture enough information about the shapes, surfaces and depths of objects to reconstruct those images in 3D.

Last May, Apple published a series of patents relating to 3D face and object recognition technology that would allow users to take a picture, and the software would be able to distinguish between the 2D and 3D elements of the image so that it could identify objects and shapes. Facial recognition, working in conjunction with Touch ID, could help Apple create a two-step authentication method that could better thwart theft or piracy. In the same way TSA agents scan X-ray images for objects, Apple's patent could find objects in a 3D image, which would be particularly beneficial for security, but also education and the medical market--for instance, doctors examining 3D MRI scans on their iOS devices could see important details with greater clarity thanks to PrimeSense's 3D sensors.

One more wrinkle to consider: 3D avatars. Apple asks iOS users to use their Apple ID, a bland username and password combination, to purchase movies, movies or applications through the company's iTunes Store or App Store. The Apple ID is also used for the iOS Game Center, which keeps track of a user's achievements across downloaded games. What if, instead of an Apple ID, Apple users could create customizable Apple Avatars, which would represent themselves within online or gaming environments?

Apple's patent would allow users to create 3D models of themselves, customizing features like hair, eyes, nose, eyebrows, glasses and more; with PrimeSense, it's possible Apple could create this model simply by looking at you with its special 3D cameras. Avatars seem geared toward kids and families, but the idea would give all iOS users a better sense of identity, while making the Apple brand (and identification procedures) a little more fun.

Microsoft has demonstrated how PrimeSense's 3D tech could augment the TV experience, but since a new Apple television would require drastic changes across its international retail stores — which probably won't happen in 2014 — it's more likely 3D sensors will first be optimized in mobile products like the iPhone and iPad (and iWatch?).

It's possible Apple could build a new 3D camera system with PrimeSense's technology in nine months — in time for the 2014 iPhone or iPad — but releasing this technology next year may not be a good move strategically.

Apple traditionally changes the exterior design of its iPhone every two years, which suggests we're due for a thinner and lighter iPhone in 2014. But incorporating PrimeSense's 3D tech would require substantial changes to the iPhone's internal design and camera design, and would almost surely have a negative effect on the iPhone's or iPad's battery life. Adding 3D cameras to the next line of iPhones and iPads might not make sense short-term, but Apple fans should get excited about taking 3D pictures in 2015.

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