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Microsoft’s new Israeli heart
By DOV PREMINGER
01/04/2010
At the heart of Microsoft Xbox’s next-generation technology is PrimeSense, a Tel Aviv-based company with a cutting edge camera.
 
At the heart of Microsoft Xbox’s next-generation technology is PrimeSense, a five year-old Tel Aviv-based company with a cutting edge, 3D motion-sensing camera.

Both Microsoft and Sony have come under pressure from the success of rival Nintendo’s motion-controlled Wii, and each plans to release a competing motion-gaming accessory by the end of 2010.

Sony Corp’s PlayStation Move appears to be similar to the Wii remote, albeit said to detect movements more precisely.

Microsoft is attempting to leap ahead and introduce a completely controller-free gaming device. Code-named Project Natal, it uses a motion-sensing camera developed by PrimeSense to detect the player’s movements. PrimeSense is in the process of licensing the technology to Microsoft’s Xbox.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, PrimeSense founder Aviad Maizels and its CEO Inon Beracha explained how their technology differs from the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation Move.

“If you look at the Nintendo Wii or PlayStation Move, they enable you to track one pointing space,” they said. “When you are in the field of the PrimeSense sensor, it’s like you’re wearing a thousand Wiis. It tracks your position 30 times per second.”

Aviad and a team of five founded the company back in 2005. They have raised nearly $30 million from venture capital firms Gemini Capital, Genesis Venture Capital and Canaan Partners. Beracha was recruited after serving as CEO of Nasdaq-listed DSP Group. Today, PrimeSense has 92 employees, with plans to expand to 120 before long.

PrimeSense is the second Israeli company to be involved with Microsoft’s Project Natal. The first was 3DV Systems, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2009 for a reported $35m.

3DV Systems developed a time-of-flight camera that purportedly had the same applications as PrimeSense’s camera. The question has been why Microsoft needs two companies that are doing the same thing.

While the PrimeSense team couldn’t comment on 3DV Systems, they did say that “the 3D sensing technology in Project Natal is solely PrimeSense,” which may indicate that PrimeSense has supplanted 3DV Systems’ technology as Microsoft’s camera of choice.

Aviad and Inon of PrimeSense were careful to explain that the PrimeSense technology uses a proprietary technology called “light coding,” rather than the time-of-flight cameras used by of its competitors. Time-of-flight emits strong pulses of light and measures the delay in their return to calculate positions.

“Time-of-flight came from laser radar systems with military applications,”

said Aviad and Inon. “[But] the DNA of the PrimeSense technology was from day one for the consumer market.

“There are a lot of differences between PrimeSense and time-of-flight cameras in general. PrimeSense has achieved a breakthrough on price and performance. The performance we generated through the device is better in a long list of parameters [than time-of-flight].”

Aviad and Inon said that Microsoft is planing to sell the Natal camera to consumers separately from the Xbox. PrimeSense was unable to disclose how much the camera costs to manufacture.

“It is expected to retail between $80 and $100,” they said. “Though we can’t comment on exact prices, I would say that based on the breakthrough we did on the system level, we were able to bring overall performance to new levels.

“[Financially], we brought it down by orders of magnitude. Much cheaper than any other solution that was out there.”

The Xbox is just the beginning of the big plans PrimeSense has for its technology. The company plans to license the technology for a wide range of applications within the consumer device industry.

“PrimeSense is game changing. It changes how machines perceive humans and enable better interface between machines and human beings,” they said.

“In the same way that we teamed with Microsoft, we plan to grow the company to other areas. You’re going to see products later this year. Smart homes systems, controlling the TV, living room PC, systems that turn on the lights or even dim the light according to where people are in the room. Eventually it will be ubiquitous in every consumer device.”

Aviad and Inon have a strong vision for the company’s future.

“Our plan is to turn PrimeSense into a big, independent public company. The DNA of the company, the people, are great.”

There was no comparable country to Israel in terms of its human capital, they said.

“There are lots of things coming from this country, because we have great people here.”

Microsoft could not be reached for comment, but it would seem that the American software giant’s fate in the next-generation console wars may depend on its small Israeli ally.
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