Apple has acquired a Zurich-based startup responsible for the motion-capture technology used in the latest Star Wars film.
Faceshift develops software that allows 3D-animated characters to mimic the facial expressions of an actor. Star Wars used it to animate the faces of CGI characters, for instance. It's not yet known how much Apple spent on the company or why it purchased it, as an Apple spokesperson would only admit that "Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time" and generally does not discuss its purpose or plans.
That means the world can do nothing but speculate. So, without further adeiu, here's five possible reasons why Apple might've bought Faceshift, but again, none of this has been confirmed. It's just our attempt at putting together the puzzle pieces. Also, it's very possible this was just an acquihire, in which Apple wanted Faceshift for its engineers rather than tech. But we're going to focus on the tech angle, of course...
Apple's been interested in motion-sensing and facial-recognition technology for quite some time.
It bought PrimeSense in 2013, which worked on the technology behind Microsoft's Kinect, and it bought Polar Rose in 2010, which developed a technology that could recognise faces and auto-tag users in photos. It was believed these purchases were helping Apple develop some fancy television with a gesture-loaded interface. But now Apple is rumoured to have abandoned all TV plans in favour of improving its set-top box.
The latest Apple TV of course aims to bring content (in the form of Apple's forthcoming cord-cutting TV subcription service) and mobile gaming to your livingroom TV, among other things. So, with that in mind, it's possible that Apple bought Faceshift to create its own animated shows or even games. The company has longstanding ties to Pixar and Disney, after all.
But if original programming and games is too much of a stretch, consider the possibility that it might want to offer a framework that'll let developers add Faceshift-type features into their own apps and games for the Apple TV, such as animated avatars that mimic your face.
It's been rumoured that Apple is working on a virtual-reality product, and Faceshift's augmented technology could help that product come to fruition. Imagine a Hololens or an Oculus Rift made by Apple!
Earlier this year, the US Patent and Trademark Office granted 41 new patents to Apple, one of which detailed a VR headset for iPhone. According to PatentlyApple, the patent is about a video headset that uses an iPhone oriPod for its display. Apple's patent also mentioned a remote and exterior controls, the ability to connect to a device’s camera, and the use of haptics and other sensors.
Samsung’s Oculus-powered VR headset and Google’s Cardboard are similar devices in that they require a smartphone to not only display virtual reality but also power the experience. Apple's patent was originally filed 5 years ago and is not proof that Apple will come out with a VR headset any time soon, but the company has been eager to hire engineers who work on similar technologies.
In 2014, for instance, Apple was looking for Oculus and Leap experts to work on virtual reality gaming, experiences, and interfaces.
Snapchat introduced a new feature called Lenses in September, and they've become incredibly popular ever since. Snapchat said its users are including Lenses in about 10 million snaps a day. Lenses, which are basically a way to augment your selfies, overlay goofy animations on top of your snap/selfie. One popular lens, which debuted when Lenses were first introduced, is a rainbow that pours out of your mouth like vomit.
It's possible Apple might want to include a similar feature in FaceTime, so that video chats can be entertaining and thus more popular to use. Imagine talking with your mom over FaceTime and then applying a Faceshift-developed lens of some sort that allows you to puke rainbows.
Another possibility is that Apple wants to develop a facial-unlocking feature for its devices. Android offers a similar feature, but it can be easily tricked when a user holds a photo up to the device's camera, etc. Apple took its time delivering a fingerprint-reading feature in its devices because it wanted to create an unlocking feature that was fast and reliable, so the same might be true with facial-unlocking.
Beyond unlocking your device, Apple might be exploring ways to authorise Touch ID with facial-recognition, in which you could just look at your phone in order to verify an iTunes purchase or Apple Pay transaction.
The possibilities are endless.
The most boring idea floating around out there is that Apple might be looking to improve its API that is able to recognise faces in photos and videos. Google Photos offers an automatic-tagging feature that can identify faces in photos, but it's not very accurate. Faceshift's technology could help Apple develop a product that rivals Google Photos or maybe even improve its Photos app.
Let us know in the comments what you think Apple might have up its sleeve.