After years of incremental innovation, the smartphone industry recently began rolling out novel features like the fingerprint scanner in the iPhone 5 and the curved display in the Samsung Galaxy Round. But gadget lovers looking for a good reason to upgrade may want to hold out for the next generation of iPhones or iPads. According to interviews with sensor and camera makers, devices that include 3D cameras could be landing in consumers’ hands sometime in late 2014.
“They are undergoing various kinds of validation and qualification as we speak,” said Kartik Venkataraman, co-founder and CTO of Pelican Imaging, a startup based in Mountain View, CA.
Tal Dagan, vice president of marketing for PrimeSense, which makes the leading 3D sensor available today, initially declined to comment on the timelines of PrimeSense’s OEM partners. “I don’t believe any small vendor such as we would know accurately anyway,” he said. But Dagan also didn’t want to leave the impression that a competitor would be first to market. “I can say we are deeply involved with a couple of projects, and, yes, I think you will see 3D capabilities in a phone or tablet in 2014,” he conceded.
Last night, two weeks after my interview with Dagan, an Israeli newspaper published a report that PrimeSense had been bought by Apple for $345 million. AllThingsD reported today that an offer has been made, and a deal is expected to close by the end of this week.
Companies like Qualcomm are already creating the software that developers will need to incorporate 3D sensor data into mobile games and augmented reality apps. And judging from the success of a recent Kickstarter campaign for a 3D sensor that attaches to the outside of an iPad, the public can’t wait to get their hands on the technology. Occipital, a San Francisco-based startup, initially sought $100,000 for the Structure Sensor it built on top of PrimeSense. In less than four weeks, it raised almost $1.3 million.
The impact on the world of a sudden influx of affordable devices with depth-sensing capabilities could be profound. For the first time, owners of ordinary smartphones will be able to easily reproduce virtually anything as a 3D scan, from pets and people to interiors and exteriors of buildings. And smart devices could be just the beginning of the 3D sensing wave as everything from televisions to vehicles and home monitoring systems are endowed with depth perception, making it possible for them to “see” things in space, rather than just reacting to changes in a 2D image.
“There are just so many applications you can build when you can sense depth,” said Raj Talluri, senior vice president of product management at Qualcomm. “I believe it will be fantastic.”
A look at the existing uses of 3D technology gives a glimpse of what will be possible when 3D sensors become widely available on smartphones and tablets. Today’s 3D scanners and printers are already being used to print everything from the prosaic—iPhone accessories and product prototypes —to the whimsical—toys, jewelry, home furnishings, even life-size replicas of dinosaur skulls.
The reason for the boom is a sharp drop in price. Today, a 3D scanner and printer bought on Amazon cost about $3,600, compared to tens of thousands of dollars just a few years ago. As the price of 3D scanning falls to the cost of a smartphone and printing becomes commoditized, 3D technology will become as ubiquitous as Facebook.
“Everything is becoming science fiction,” Cornell University professor Hod Lipson and analyst Melba Kurman write in “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing,” a book they co-authored last January. Indeed, many of the uses of the first generation of PrimeSense’s 3D sensor, known as the Carmine, sound like something out of an episode of Futurama. There are self-navigating robots that make breakfast and body scanners that take the guesswork out of clothes shopping. In the ordinary day-to-day, architects are using 3D scanners to reduce project costs and attorneys are showing 3D scans of crime scenes in the courtroom.
“Once this technology shows up in a tablet or a phone, people will be able to make these models with the hardware they have in their pocket all the time. At that point, the possibilities for this just really explode,” said Matt Bell, chief strategy officer and co-founder of Matterport, which offers a 3D camera and cloud-processing service.
When 3D sensors finally show up in phones and tablets, they will have been nearly a decade in the making.
Carmine, the first affordable, mass-produced 3D sensor, was conceived by PrimeSense in 2005. Aviad Maizels, a co-founder, showed Microsoft a prototype in 2006. Maizels pitched the idea of “giving devices the gift of sight.” With Carmine, the Xbox would be able to “see” the environment, understand its surroundings and interact with players in completely new ways. Four years later the Kinect released. Within sixty days it had set a Guinness World Record for the fastest selling gaming peripheral.