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Sixth sense


Date: September 28, 2014
Weizmann Magazine Vol. 6

Aviad Maizels’ innate instinct to usher insights from basic research to industry led his vision-sensory gaming product straight to Apple Inc.

Aviad Maizels, 38, one of Israel’s leading high-tech entrepreneurs in the past decade and a Weizmann Institute of Science alumnus, likes to say that a big part of the Israeli high-tech future lies within the labs of leading academics who generate innovative ideas that can revolutionize our lives in many different ways. The founder of PrimeSense—a company specializing in visual data processing that was sold to Apple Inc. last year - would know, having received his MSc under the supervision of Prof. Adi Shamir at the Weizmann Institute.

PrimeSense, founded in late 2005, made headlines last year with its sale to Apple, and thanks to its innovative technology. The company developed a technology that can both see a threedimensional scenery and analyze it using a mix of hardware and software, so that devices can interact with users. Integrating insights from physics, computer vision, information theory, and computer science, the technology assesses a scene with near-infrared light, and uses various algorithms to “read” and extract the 3D data and generate depth, video, and audio information. Usable with multiple systems, it essentially allows machines to “sense” the world around them without active user input.

PrimeSense was purchased by Apple Inc. in 2013 for an estimated $350 million. Following the acquisition, most PrimeSense employees were absorbed into Apple, which rebranded the company’s headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Maizels came to the Weizmann Institute while still in military service in 2002 to study part time in the Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics. He says it was the quality of the people at the Institute which appealed to him most. “When you look for a position or a career, the most important thing is finding a good ‘teacher,’ who is really more than a teacher—a mentor,” he says.

He has especially fond memories of Prof. Shamir. ““He always remembers his students, cares about them years after they’ve graduated, and is always interested to hear what you have to say”. Maizels’ master’s thesis on error correction was co-supervised by Prof. Simon Litsyn of Tel Aviv University. Both, he says, are his role models because of their ability to “balance academia and industry”.

“Science generates real value and is a growth engine for the economy,” he says. “We should aspire to incorporate valuable discoveries and studies by Israeli scientists in the commercial market to maintain advantage in the world of business”.

After his graduation from Weizmann in 2005 and the completion of his army service, Maizels went to work in the Israeli high-tech industry. As an avid gamer, he was deeply engaged with the question: “Why is there so little innovation in the gaming genres? What would happen if computers could understand humans, as well as their environment?” The answer to these questions, Maizels says, could change how humans communicate with computers, and also how computers are put to use in our world today - in gaming and beyond.

This was the thinking process that led to the establishment of PrimeSense. Its name was derived from the conclusion that the most important ‘sensor’ for understanding the world is vision. Maizels and his co-founders believed that through a combination of 2D, 3D, and audio input, they could generate machines that are able to ‘understand the world’ - from gaming to smart homes, to autonomously watch over the elderly in order to call for help if the need arises, etc.

Maizels says PrimeSense succeeded thanks to a unique combination of insights and creativity of its members, the persistence of the team, and market conditions (a.k.a. luck). In consumer electronics, user interfaces are created amidst what Maizels calls ‘the interface crisis’: There will always come a point in time where the current interface becomes too complicated to use due to the number of operations it needs to support, and there will be always someone who will break the paradigm - two good examples are Nintendo’s Wii and Apple’s iPhone.

In the world of gaming, the user interface of the mid-2000s displayed remote controls packed with many buttons and features, he explains. Nintendo made the first big break with its Wii remote control and Microsoft, in an attempt to regain its leading position, looked for something that would completely break the paradigm; PrimeSense’s technology was just what they had in mind. Thus, PrimeSense technology was integrated into Kinect, a visual and audio sensor developed by Microsoft. Kinect for Xbox 360 was launched on November 4, 2010, and quickly set a Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling gaming peripheral, selling eight million units in two months.

PrimeSense’s goal was to continue to lead the gaming “revolution” and expand it to many other markets such as interactive TVs, home robots, elderly care, etc., before it was was acquired by Apple. Maizels says, however, that the deal was a success. “When Apple makes a product, they make a product,” he says. “Its products are always precise and have the best finish in the market. It has a reputation for seeing things through. The moment PrimeSense technology will be incorporated into an Apple commercial product, the vision of PrimeSense will become something even bigger than what we first had in mind.”

Maizels says that the life of a start-up or any company for that matter is a “never-ending struggle,” from the first meeting of founders to the IPO stage or to the merger or acquisition stage. “You always have to be original, innovative, and relevant, or else you collapse.”