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PrimeSense: Beyond Natal

Digital Foundry meets the men behind the 3D camera.

It begins. After spending much of the last year in "stealth mode", Microsoft is starting its campaign to ramp up awareness for its revolutionary Project Natal motion-sensing hardware. On Wednesday, the platform holder revealed that its key partner in the creation of its new controller-less controller is little-known Israeli company PrimeSense, who designed the core 3D capture system at the heart of Natal.

This won't be news to avid followers of the Digital Foundry blog (we mentioned the PrimeSense deal in passing around nine months ago), but the joint announcement from Microsoft and the hardware vendor signals not only that Big Things are about to happen as Natal is revealed in all its glory at E3, but also that the underlying technology within the Xbox 360 upgrade is set to find its way across a vast range of consumer electronics.

PrimeSense, headed up by company founder and president Avaid Maizels, believes that while technology has improved massively, accessibility to everything that it offers is held back by the limitations in the user interface - and that applies to everything from the games we play to the HD displays we play them on.

"The more complicated the game, the more story involved, the more opportunities you have, the more situations you have, the less gamers are actually playing because it's getting more and more complicated. You're not using all the features in the game," Maizels tells Digital Foundry the day after the joint announcement with Microsoft.

"The same thing is happening all around us: the more features you have on your TV, the more buttons you have on the remote. The more buttons you have, the less likely you are to use these features."

PrimeSense's thinking, perhaps not surprisingly, is uncannily similar to that of Microsoft's: technology becomes more inclusive, more intuitive and easier to get to grips with when it interfaces directly with the human body.

"PrimeSense was conceived from the problem, not from the technology. We didn't have the technology when we were born. We just had a set of guidelines," Maizels explains. "From day one we wanted to be targeting consumer devices, from day one we wanted to change the interface between humans and advanced machines. Of course gaming was one of our prime targets as we are gamers."

The sentiment is backed up by PrimeSense's VP of business and marketing, Adi Berenson.

"If you look back into history you'll see that the electronics world behaves according to Moore's Law: that the computational power is almost doubling itself every 18 months," says Berenson.

"What we're seeing is that unfortunately, people have not discovered a way to double our brain density every 18 months, so the big step forward in terms of adoption from consumers in terms of new technology comes with breakthroughs in user interfaces. Computers came a part of our lives when the graphical user interface and the mouse was produced, if you compare it to the command line."

PrimeSense's promo vid shows its vision in how a vast range of functionality can be intuitively accessed via gesture control.

The PrimeSense team are happy to admit that the enormous take-up of the Nintendo Wii and the way it brought new people into games gave them pause for thought.

"With gaming... well, my parents never came back from a party and told me that they all played Call of Duty or God of War - that was not a part of their life," Berenson reveals. "Suddenly, six months ago, they came back and told that they played tennis on Wii with their friends. We're talking about people who are more than 60 years old."

While Maizels and Berenson are understandably guarded in discussing their direct dealings with Microsoft, it's clear that there is a palpable excitement from the Israelis as they reveal what they can about the genesis of what has the potential to be one of the most revolutionary pieces of gaming technology ever made.

"We went to Microsoft quite some time ago with the raw technology, about what you can do, what you can capture," shares Adi Berenson.

"I really want to compliment them in the highest way. You could see at the other side of the room that they 'got it' immediately, and they did magic with it. They knew how to take this technology in its raw form and create the surrounding eco-system and supporting software in order to make it what it is - which is Natal, far more than the raw technology. The match was a rare case of perfect synergy between two partners."

"Microsoft is a dream that came through for us. It's an honour to work with them," adds Aviad Maizels. "What we can share is that our visions are aligned... And you can give lots of credit to them, it's not trivial to roll out this kind of technology, this kind of vision, and to be the first one to do it. In this market, it's a big step."