If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it dozens of times: “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.”
When it comes to its corporate acquisitions, Cupertino likes to play its cards very close to its chest. Of course, that doesn’t stop industry watchers from peering at the tea leaves to see if they can divine exactly what the company might be working on.
And, hey, I’m no different than those folks, because Apple does so little to telegraph its plans that even a boilerplate statement confirming an acquisition is a rare peek behind the curtain. Apple CEO Tim Cook said not long ago that the company makes an acquisition every two to three weeks, and not even all of those make it into the public eye. So let’s take a look at the firms that we do know Apple has acquired recently and see what we can glean.
Always in motion capture is the future
Back in October of last year, Apple quietly picked up IKinema Ltd., a company based in the UK that specializes in motion capture technology. That tech is the kind of thing that’s used in movies, TV, and video games to collect information about how a person or animal moves and then map it onto a virtual model. (Whenever you see behind-the-scenes images of people wearing those wacky suits, or little dots glued to their face, you’re seeing motion capture technology at work.)
Is Apple building out a special effects house for its burgeoning TV and film production arm? Not particularly likely. But this also isn’t the first motion-capture related company that Apple has bought. Way back in 2015, it acquired Faceshift, a company that used technology to capture facial expressions and translate them onto digital avatars—technology that likely did become Animoji/Memoji.
While it seems somewhat unlikely that Apple would buy an entire company simply in order to make those animations a little more accurate, what if IKinema will help extend that feature beyond just facial expressions and into the rest of the body as well? It wouldn’t surprise me to see Apple at work on a digital avatar system that people could use to represent themselves not only in FaceTime calls and iMessages but perhaps even online. (Especially if it doesn’t require you to wear a weird suit or a bunch of dots.)
The bleeding edge of photography
Maybe Apple had some sort of “buy one UK company, get one UK company free” deal going: in December, it acquired Spectral Edge, a startup also based in Great Britain, which specializes in computational photography. In particular, Spectral Edge’s tech combined images taken from traditional cameras along with images from infrared cameras to create better quality photos. This approach seems to produce images with richer colors that look closer to what you see in real life.
It’s absolutely no surprise that Apple would buy a company that could help improve its photos. After all, cameras are the biggest selling point of most smartphones these days, and that’s where the competition between Apple and its rivals is the most intense.
As for when it might implement this feature, well, Apple already uses IR cameras in its True Depth camera system present on the iPhones X, XR, XS, and 11 series—they read dots generated by an infrared emitter for use in tech like Face ID and the Animoji/Memoji system. It would hardly be a stretch for the company to integrate an IR camera into main cameras on the back of the phone—though that camera bump is already getting pretty overloaded. Either way, I wouldn’t expect to see a benefit from this recent acquisition for another year at least.
Well, if nothing else, Xnor.ai certainly wins the award for “most difficult to pronounce” Apple acquisition. This very week, news broke that Apple had spent $200 million on the AI-focused company, which has developed machine learning and image recognition algorithms that are designed to work locally on devices, rather than being offloaded to a remote server.
One of Xnor.ai’s previous clients, Wyze Labs, used the AI technology to detect people in security camera videos. Though that deal has now ended (likely pursuant to the Apple acquisition), Apple could certainly use the tech for similar uses—though I expect the company’s ambitions are probably broader. There are a ton of applications: everything from helping detection of people and objects in Photos to better Siri processing to making it easier for third-party developers to integrate AI and machine learning into their own applications.
AI is obviously a big area of interest for Apple—so big, in fact, that its AI/machine learning chief, John Giannandrea, is one of the company’s executive team. And given that Apple’s made a big deal about on-device processing of data, so that your personal data is under your control, Xnor.ai certainly seems like a very solid fit, with a lot of potential upside for both Apple and its users.
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Dan has been writing about all things Apple since 2006, when he first started contributing to the MacUser blog. He's a prolific podcaster and the author of the Galactic Cold War series, including his latest, The Nova Incident, coming in July 2022.