Kinecting the dots

Apple just paid $350 million for the company behind the first Xbox Kinect. Why?

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PrimeSense, an Israeli firm that makes motion sensors, originally made its name in the tech world as a crucial contributor to Microsoft’s Kinect device — an Xbox add-on that enabled gesture control of the console, in games and on the television itself, and that eventually became the fastest-selling gadget of all time.

Now PrimeSense is making headlines for a different reason: It’s being acquired by Apple, for about $350 million.

There’s a general assumption that the acquisition must tie into the increasingly unicorn-ish Apple television set (or iTV) of the future; or that if it doesn’t, it’ll lead to some sort of “key technology” or, at the very least, something cool!

In other words: When you get past the headlines, this is a deal that evidently raises more questions than it answers.

For example:

· Why didn’t Microsoft buy PrimeSense? The newer Xbox One version of Kinect reportedly uses a Microsoft-grown version of PrimeSense’s technology. It seems notable that Team Redmond was able to pull this off, but Apple has to go shopping. (And Apple has done the homegrown trick in the past: The original iPod’s operating system was attributed to an outside firm called Pixo, later acquired by Sun Microsystems; obviously, Apple figured out how to proceed on its own.) Surely Team Cupertino isn’t just now getting around to recognizing the potential of motion control; so why did Apple have to buy PrimeSense, and not Microsoft?

· What potential does Apple see here? When I reported on the Kinect a year or two ago, top Microsofters gave me an earful about “natural user interface” (or waving your hands around in front of a screen to control gizmos) as the ultimate successor to the point-and-click graphical user interface that Apple popularized (and Microsoft subsequently aped). That argument implied that the touchy-swipey interface Apple has embraced is a mere way station, and that soon we will all be throwing our hands in the air to control our devices. Whether it’s in the form of a TV-ish product or something else, is Apple admitting that Microsoft is right about a touchless-interface future?

· Is $350 million a lot of money? Some observers think so. And the price paid seems even higher since Apple isn’t known for flashy acquisitions. Its previous big buy: the 2012 purchase of a firm called AuthenTec, for a reported $356 million; AuthenTec’s technology went on to be key in creating the fingerprint-recognition feature of the latest iPhone. So while $700 million for two companies you’ve never heard of may sound like a large number, bear in mind that they are attached to firms with genuine breakthrough technologies — and that outfits like Snapchat and Pinterest, with revenue ranging from zero to not much, are valued at $1 billion-plus. Bear in mind also that the cash/investment hoard Apple can draw on for acquisitions is around $145 billion. So while $350 million might be a lot of money to pay an aging baseball player, it is hardly a make-or-break investment for the cash-rich Apple.

· Is this really about Apple TV? Given how long tech-land has been speculating about a genuinely breakthrough Apple version of a television, a device controllable with hand gestures seems like pretty yawn-inducing anticlimax at this point. Samsung’s Smart TV already features this concept; and while Microsoft has already pushed the idea of an Xbox/Kinect combo as no-buttons alternative to the remote control, that’s a notion that hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. Most reviewers still find it clunky, at best. Unless Apple has cracked it, the gesture-controlled iTV might be a red herring; or this might be another case of Apple improving upon a janky existing technology (MP3 players, touchscreen smartphones) and perfecting upon it, making it indispensable and obvious.

The bottom line is that it’s possible Apple might have something in mind that none of us is clever enough to deduce. After all, that used to be the Apple hallmark: telling the consumer marketplace what we wanted before we could even conceive of it.

It’s been a while since the company has made that happen: Siri and Touch ID have been money-making, promising features, but neither of them has competitors in an existential crisis.

Maybe the PrimeSense acquisition is a step back in that direction. Or maybe it’s just a gesture.