New Chips Allow Set-Tops to Read Motions and Identities of Viewers

August 14, 2009 – A start-up chip manufacturer from Israel turned cable engineers’ heads at the recent CableLabs summer conference with a demo of motion-sensing technology that supports a wide range of applications such as TV navigation, virtual keyboards and user identity detection for addressable advertising and content recommendations.

Prime Sense, voted the most promising technology over ten other presenters at the CableLabs’ annual Innovation Showcase, doesn’t claim to be doing anything not already available through other 3D machine vision technologies. But it says its chipsets embedded in Web cams operating in the near infrared spectrum have the potential to bring these motion-sensing capabilities to the mass consumer market at far lower costs than would be possible using other modes that employ optics, radar or other very high-frequency electromagnetic projections.

“We’ve created a chip that’s all about 3D sampling,” says Suneil Mishra, vice president of U.S. sales and marketing at Prime Sense. “The secret sauce is around the way we do depth acquisition.”

The technology is plug-and-play, platform independent and requires no special equipment on the part of the end user. By leveraging off-the-shelf capabilities already used in Web cams Prime Sense can turn such devices into motion-sensing machines at an added cost of just $20 per unit, Mishra says. “Other solutions cost $1,000 or more,” he adds.

“Imagine the camera as a peripheral standard USB device,” he continues. “You plug it into the cable box and set it on the TV. By sending out a signal and getting a return we can determine what objects are in front of the camera.”

The system-on-a-chip includes a sensor, which “sees” a user and their surroundings and a digital intelligence component which learns and understands user movement within those surroundings. “It allows us to identify depth very accurately and very cheaply at resolutions ranging from up to one millimeter to only a centimeter at ten feet away,” Mishra says.

“Most camera solutions don’t have that level of resolution, and other solutions require the lights to be on,” he adds. “We can work in complete darkness where the viewer is in the living room watching a movie with the lights off.”

Thus, there’s no threat of privacy invasion, he notes. “It’s not a color camera,” he explains. “The image it takes is more like a thermal image, so it’s not like it’s seeing what you look like. It’s controlled by the cable box so that the input of data to the host processor on the cable box is interacting with that device.”

Just what that host processor does with the acquired data is to be determined by software developers, set-top and TV manufacturers and service providers. Prime Sense sees a variety of applications for its technology, which can read and communicate the meaning of gestures as they relate to on-screen or virtual keyboard touch points or determine enough distinguishing characteristics of individual viewers to provide the information needed to target advertising or bring personal preferences into the on-screen navigation field.

“We have a development kit,” Mishra says. “We’re a chip vendor but realize we have to enable the ecosystem. Our focus is to go out to that ecosystem and provide our technology to all levels of developers and help them optimize the technology across the board.”

Prime Sense expects to begin shipping the chips “in volume in the very near future,” Mishra says. “We’re working with some pretty major players.”

These include entities serving other high-volume markets besides TV, such as automotive, security and game playing. Where TV is concerned Prime Sense believes there’s a major opportunity for the technology as the “set-top becomes a central hub in the home for more interactive media and social content,” Mishra says. “We see room for a lot of enhanced functionality.”

With the volume of content expanding exponentially as Web as well as traditional and on-demand options crowd into the navigation field, the technology could sort through the clutter by bringing personal viewing preferences to the fore depending on who’s in front of the TV, he suggests. The technology could also simplify the viewing selection process by allowing people to simply point to what they want to watch.

The technology could also be used to introduce keyboard applications into the TV domain in conjunction with projections of virtual keyboards onto surfaces in front of viewers. Their touches on the projected keys would be read by the sensors, allowing service providers and manufacturers to add Web browsing and other computer-like experiences to passive viewing without requiring an extra piece of hardware.

“The remote control will continue to have its place in the living room,” Mishra says. “But as more interactive content comes down the pike we can add gestures and virtual touch-screen to the navigation supported by the remote control.”

Prime Sense is at the edge of a wave of such capabilities that will be entering the TV market in the near future, Mishra notes. “You’ll see a lot of other technologies like ours,” he says. “Cable is one of the primary device targets in this space.”