Microsoft’s Project Natal tech provider revealed

An Israeli startup stepped out from behind the curtain Wednesday and revealed itself as the technology provider for Microsoft’s Project Natal, the upcoming motion-control system for its Xbox 360.

PrimeSense, a chip design company based in Tel Aviv, provided the 3D sensor technology for Project Natal, which will let players control an on-screen avatar using full-body gestures like a kick, punch or jump. Microsoft has said the technology will be available for the Xbox 360 by the holiday season.

Unlike the Nintendo Wii, Project Natal doesn’t require players to hold a controller to play games. Instead it uses a small 3D camera and a technology similar to infrared to build a 3D image of the people and objects in a room, and then detect a player’s movements within that scene.

“We are selling the chip for each Natal system, and we also license the reference design for the whole 3D sensor,” said Inon Beracha, PrimeSense’s CEO, in a telephone interview from Israel.

He wouldn’t discuss the terms of his company’s relationship with Microsoft, and a joint statement from the companies Wednesday provided few details.

It seems likely, however, that Microsoft will have demanded exclusive rights to use PrimeSense’s technology in gaming systems, at least for a limited time, to give it a head start over other console makers.

Such deals can be exclusive for a few months to a few years, but “if there’s any sweet spot, it’s probably just shy of a year,” said Richard Doherty, research director for The Envisioneering Group in Seaford, New York.

That doesn’t mean PrimeSense’s motion control technology can’t be used in other, non-gaming products, however. Beracha said PrimeSense is working with makers of TVs, set-top boxes and “living room PCs,” and that products from those vendors should appear late this year or early in 2011.

The technology could be used to let users scroll through cable TV channels or DVD menus by waving a hand in the air, instead of having to use a remote control, for example. That could end up being a bigger market for motion-sensing technologies than gaming systems, Doherty said.

“Very few people like remotes. They lose them, the batteries die — that could be a dying market,” he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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