Apple Buys Visual Effects Firm Faceshift, Tech Used in Star Wars
Faceshift, a Zurich-based startup whose motion-capture technology is used in the coming Star Wars film, has been acquired by Apple for an undisclosed amount. Founded in 2012, the company develops software that lets users create and "train" animated characters and virtual avatars with real-time recognition of facial expressions.
Neither Apple nor Faceshift responded to our requests for comment in time for publication, but the deal was confirmed late Tuesday in a report on TechCrunch. The publication reported that Apple confirmed the purchase with its usual statement, "Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans."
While Apple isn't saying anything about its plans, several observers have noted that this latest acquisition falls into the same area as several other purchases the tech giant has made over the years. Two years ago, Apple acquired PrimeSense, whose technology is used by Microsoft's Kinect motion sensor, and in 2010, it purchased Polar Rose, a Swedish firm that developed facial recognition technology.
'Democratizing' Facial-Tracking Tech
Founded by Thibaut Weise, the company's CEO, Faceshift grew out of technology developed during Weise's time as a researcher at the university of ETH Zurich. As the company further developed its offering, it also expanded geographically with offices in San Francisco.
Faceshift's U.S. presence was led by Doug Griffin, hired in 2013 to reach out to entertainment clients. Griffin, a long-time veteran of the film industry, was in charge of capture reality technologies at Industrial Light & Magic -- the special-effects company behind the Star Wars movies -- from 1998 to 2005. His LinkedIn page was recently updated to indicate he has left Faceshift to start a new company in stealth mode.
In recent years, Faceshift has demonstrated its technology at a variety of venues across the U.S. and elsewhere. In 2014, for instance, the company attended the Intel Developer Forum to show attendees how its software could be used to generate animated avatars in real time.
"Until recently, facial-movement software like this has been limited to big entertainment companies like Sega, Nickelodeon, Disney and DreamWorks," Intel iQ editor Deb Miller Landau wrote last year in a post about the company's use of Intel's RealSense technology. "Our goal is to democratize facial tracking technology. We want to make it available to a wide variety of games and animation studios -- ultimately to consumers as well."
Plans for Screen-Based Avatar Chat?
'The ability to map facial expressions onto an avatar in real time will open up the floodgates on avatar-mediated communications in virtual reality," said Karl Krantz, founder of Silicon Valley Virtual Reality, where Faceshift has also presented its technology. While the VR market won't be large enough to be interesting to Apple for several years, Apple usually comes into a new space a few years late, and then blows everyone away with superior execution, he told us.
Apple's latest acquisition, would make sense because Faceshift was designed from the beginning to work with PrimeSense sensors and PrimeSense was also acquired by Apple, he said.
"Faceshift is still one of the best ways to demonstrate the potential of depth cameras," Krantz added. "Although the VR uses are the most compelling to me, it's possible that Apple is interested in using this technology for screen-based avatar chat on either mobile or desktop, or even something as simple as reliable smile detection for taking photos with an iPhone."