In the small world of silicon chip engineering, ISSCC is the premier annual conference. It’s hosted right down the road from Microsoft Silicon Valley, but, until this year, no Microsoft paper had ever been accepted into the conference.
Then came the Kinect “time-of-flight sensor” for Xbox One and all of that changed.
“This year we presented the sensor at ISSCC and it opened a lot of eyes in the Valley and beyond,” says Pat O’Connor, Director of Engineering on MSV’s Silicon Development team. “It made the statement that Microsoft is here and serious about doing custom silicon development.”
The time-of-flight sensor and its advanced silicon chip essentially function as a camera. But it is not just any camera. Because it allows a device to recognize human gestures in greater detail, it’s a huge step forward on the path toward true Natural User Interface.
Cyrus Bamji, Hardware Architect for Architecture & Silicon Management, explains, “As part of the Kinect for Xbox One, the sensor creates better gameplay because it has great resolution and works whether the person is closer or further away from the camera. And it is now sensitive to much finer movements like fingers on the hands and rotation of the wrists.”
When the time-of-flight engineering team was acquired by Microsoft in 2010, it was up to them to figure the optimal way to add value within the company. “We were really empowered to go talk to product groups and figure out what they needed and to target those opportunities,” Pat says. “It was an entrepreneurial undertaking and we had to prove our mettle.”
What the team created was a camera for Kinect with its own modulated light source and custom sensor. The camera transmits light, which bounces off an object, returns to the sensor, where it measures how long the light took to travel round trip (hence ‘time-of-flight’). As we know the speed of light, the time is used to calculate distance. Because the sensor does this measurement with every one of its quarter million pixels at the same time, it can generate a 3D image with an amazing level of accuracy.
As for the team’s next steps, Swati Mehta, Principal Scientist for Architecture & Silicon Management, says, “Our mission right now is to miniaturize the technology and make it available for mobile and personal devices, and really find applications where we can bring the Kinect ‘wow’ experience to a range of devices.”
Pat continues, “We’re talking to all the teams in the company that are potentially interested. It’s very exciting for us to move the technology into mobile and other devices. We think it will bring some very interesting user experiences in the future.”