Is the 3-D Camera Tipping Point Here?

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Although 3-D cameras have been around for several years, it is only recently that they have begun to evolve from a gimmick or peripheral gadget to a core and essential part of computing.

Multiple industries that are dependent on excellent 3-D camera technology are garnering tremendous attention and experiencing rapid growth. This includes 3-D printing, IoT, virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence, medicine, and augmented reality (AR) to name a few.

Interested in 3D Scanning for the Classroom? Read this post on my explorations with the HP Sprout Pro.

The MIT Technology Review posted in 2012 asking if, and validating that, smart phones may be spreading faster than any other technology in human history (along with some cool graphs to show market penetration of nine technologies since 1876). As you can guess without even going to the post, smartphones have had adoption that eclipses every other tech phenomena.

Most industry analysts have not studied 3-D cameras as their own category (yet), but by evaluating related industry research and investments or acquisitions, a solid view will emerge. The market potential does not have a specific growth number, either, so again we’ll look at fields that rely on 3-D cameras. Is this what the tipping point looks like? Looking at the adoption of other now mainstream technologies (for instance, phone to mobile phone to smart phone) can provide a model for what’s happening now in 3-D.

In interviews with a relatively recent entrant, Orbbec, maker of the Astra 3D, I started thinking more of this up-and-coming industry. Their new product, Persee, is a “3-D camera-computer” not unlike the Kinect in appearance, but with more brains, a lot more brains. The 3-year-old company is well funded and has maintained a stealthy approach. Just like with 3-D printers, there are many startups and large brands trying to tap into this future opportunity.

As the title states, Google, Intel, Apple, Microsoft, and Sony are aggressively building or acquiring 3-D sensor technology plays. I’ll explore them in greater depth below and in other posts this week. The combination of 3-D sensors and other IoT (Internet of Things) sensors leads me to believe that new efforts by companies like Orbbec will drive even more adoption (and more acquisitions by the big brands).

The Market Sizing of Related 3-D Fields

  • Wohlers Report 2015 shows a market size of $4.1 Billion, referring to manufacturers producing and selling the actual machines. Disclosure: I served as a paid technical editor for a few chapters of this year’s Wohlers Report. Gartner (in a Forbes post by Louis Columbus) estimates that the 3-D printer market will be a $13B business by 2018, saying that the 3-D printer market is at an “inflection point.” However, 3-D printers don’t operate in a vacuum; they need files to print. The ability to create 3-D scans of people and physical objects is the purview of 3-D cameras.
  • IDC estimates that the (Internet of Things) IoT market size (Forbes) will exceed $7 trillion by 2020. Defined by networked systems’ ability to communicate without direct human interaction, many IoT scenarios are made possible by the existence of 3-D cameras. Indeed, a systems’ ability to do things in response to humans and environments requires a computer’s ability to see, hear and make sense of its surroundings.
  • The VR/AR space is growing beyond the confines of gaming and the living room. In recent years, there’s been rapid (speculative) penetration into training, infotainment, healthcare, and industrial use cases. At the core of virtual reality is the need for sensors. Some market estimates show it reaching $150 Billion by 2020.

My conclusion reflects what former Orbbec VP of Marketing, Heather Mitchell, shared with me as we closed an interview: “In the very near future it will be hard to remember a time when computers did not have 3-D cameras built in.”

The original full version of this post first appeared on Forbes in October 2015. Is the 3-D Camera Tipping Point Here? – Apple, Intel, Google, Microsoft, Sony

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