Friday, November 5, 2010

Microsoft Kinect is a win for lasers and imaging

Bravo to Microsoft this week for launching a new market segment for lasers! The company finally launched the Kinect, a laser-based accessory that allows Xbox360 players to use their body as a remote control--gesture recognition. The lasers illuminate a field and an imaging system interprets it for the game console.

The reviews so far indicate that Microsoft is on to something here. It is a step up from the Nintendo Wii remote controller and way beyond the Sony PlayStation Eye, neither of which used laser projection to create the image. The main complaints so far seem to be that the Kinect is understandably a little clunky yet, and it doesn't work well in crowded spaces, like dorm rooms.

The system needs single-mode lasers to get a strong enough return signal to do the processing. But, they have to operate in the near-infrared to be invisible and at low enough average power to be eye safe. Kinect uses a structured light technique, which is to say that it interprets the distortion in an image created by the object. When the object moves, the field is distored accordingly.

The project was born as Project Natal, from two Israeli companies, Prime Sense and 3DV Systems. Microsoft bought 3DV in 2009, and this week it bought Canesta. Canesta is known for its laser-based 3D imaging system based on the time-of-flight technique. It works much like radar to recreate a 3D form. Years ago Canesta used the technique to read finger strokes on a virtual keyboard. It worked, and although I prefer an actual keyboard for touch typing, it may be useful as an alternative to touchscreens. The product is sold through a joint venture called Celluon, created in 2004.

The Kinect technique is less expensive than the Canesta approach. Maybe Microsoft has other plans for Canesta. Or it wants Canesta's expertise in imaging. Or maybe it wants to keep it away from competitors.

Any way you look at it this is all good news for lasers and imaging engineers. It's the beginning of a new market segment.