Microsoft’s newest Xbox video game console is generating excitement among gamers worldwide. Its core component – a radical new 3D sensoring technology – was developed by Israel’s PrimeSense.
Video games aren’t just for kids. Gaming is a $20 billion annual business in the US alone, having long ago surpassed sales in the music industry. And Israeli companies – chief among them Tel Aviv-based PrimeSense – are at the heart of the latest developments sweeping the industry. Thanks to the company’s 3D sensing technology, set to become the central feature of Microsoft’s latest Xbox video game consoles, true 3D play is just months away.
PrimeSense and several other Israeli companies have been quietly developing hardware and software for a new iteration of the Xbox gaming system, codenamed Project Natal, which was announced in 2009.
Last year, Microsoft acquired Israeli company 3DV, which many industry observers believed was connected to the development of Project Natal. Meanwhile, last month SanDisk based in Kfar Saba in central Israel, began shipping its Xbox 360 USB Flash Drive, designed to enable gamers to easily move their avatars and game stats between Xbox machines.
But it is PrimeSense’s 3D interactive system that has generated the most excitement, especially after an April press conference in Tel Aviv, where top Microsoft honchos announced that the motion technology built into the final Natal product was being produced by PrimeSense. Xbox users will be able to place themselves literally ‘in the game,’ by attaching a box made by PrimeSense to their systems.
When a user walks into the range of the PrimeSense 3D sensor, anything he or she does ‘live’ will be reflected in the actions of the avatars, the action figures that play the game on-screen. If you’re playing tennis, for example, you just move your arm in a racket-swinging motion when you see the ball coming at your avatar – and your avatar’s arm moves, swinging the on-screen racket and, hopefully, hitting the ball back at your opponent. Your avatar does whatever you do.
Helping Microsoft to battle the competition
The new addition will help Microsoft in its ongoing battle against Nintendo and Sony, makers of the Wii gaming system and the Playstation console, respectively. Gamers can spend hours debating the fine points of the different systems – each has its advantages – but most consumers agree that the technical specs and networking capabilities of the Xbox are the best of the lot, while the Wii is most user-friendly, mainly because it uses a sensor to represent your actions on-screen.
When you enter the field of vision of the Wii tracker, you see your avatar mimicking your live actions on-screen – just like with the PrimeSense sensor. That user-friendliness has made the Wii the most popular gaming console, outselling both Xbox and PlayStation between 2008 and the beginning of this year.
It was to address this advantage of the Wii that Microsoft decided to integrate PrimeSense’s technology into the Xbox, company CEO Inon Beracha tells ISRAEL21c. “At the heart of our product is a chip that is such a sea change in the implementation of 3D sensing, it’s like the change from analog to digital technology,” he declares. “That’s how far superior it is to the Wii’s implementation. If the Wii can track one point – an X and Y axis – and extrapolate it into action on screen, our product can sense tens of thousands of points, making the sensor much more sensitive and accurate. It’s like wearing a suit of Wii armor,” says Beracha.
The PrimeSense sensor has a new chip the company has developed based on a technology called “light coding.” The device receives an infrared pattern as an input, and produces a VGA-size depth image of the scene. It works in full 3D, capable of translating depth and distance into games – unlike another Sony gaming device it has been compared to, called the EyeToy, which could only understand 2D.
Changing channels by moving your hand
Not only is the PrimeSense system more accurate, it’s also a lot cheaper to produce. “Microsoft of course controls pricing on the Xbox system, but I can tell you that what we have built for them is not likely to raise the price of the system significantly,” Beracha states. The Internet rumor mill seems to confirm this, with several gaming bloggers claiming that Microsoft will slash the price of the Natal-equipped Xbox.
The official release date is expected to be announced at the upcoming E3 show (the Electronic Entertainment Expo, June 15-17). According to a Microsoft source, the system will be released at the end of October – in time for the winter gift-buying season. Regardless of the release date, Beracha says PrimeSense is ready, as development of the technology has been completed.
While PrimeSense is licensing the technology for Microsoft’s use, the company has other plans for its 3D sensoring technology: “With a device we are developing for home entertainment systems, users will be able to change channels or adjust volume with just hand gestures,” Beracha reveals. Other uses could include interactive systems for video communications, security systems, digital signage, air conditioning, touch screens and many others, he adds.
Meanwhile, the Microsoft deal has been the engine for the Tel Aviv-based company, which was established in 2005 and has a very respectable 95 people on its payroll.
PrimeSense was founded by Aviad Maizels, who served in an elite intelligence unit in the Israel Defense Forces as head of a technological R&D section. According to Beracha, Maizels had long envisioned a product like the one developed by PrimeSense, which is the main reason that he founded the company.
PrimeSense received its first seed money in 2005, and counts Gemini Israel Funds, Genesis Partners and Canaan Partners among its investors, with the latter alone investing $20 million in the company in 2008. The investors needn’t worry, Beracha says; they will recoup their money, and then some. “We are set to become profitable in the near future,” he asserts.