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The 3D sensor that could change our mobile lives

At CES 2013, PrimeSense showed off its tiny 3D sensor, Capri, which should soon come embedded in mobile devices.

PrimeSense's 3D sensor, Capri is designed for mobile devices Paul Sloan/CNET

LAS VEGAS--When the company behind the gesture technology in the Kinect came to CES a year ago to show how its 3D sensors can enable people to control their TVs with simple gestures, its execs talked about how their sensors eventually would be embedded in mobile devices, opening up a range of possible applications.

At CES 2013, that company, Israeli-based PrimeSense, showed off the tiny sensor it says will soon make that a reality.

PrimeSense's new 3D sensor, called Capri, is 10 times smaller than its current sensor and, according to the company, the smallest in the world. The design, says PrimeSense, allows for improved capabilities that it says will soon find its way into PCs, tablets, laptops, phones, various robots, and much more.

PrimeSense President and founder Aviad Maizels told me that the company is delivering these sensors to device makers in the coming months -- he wouldn't name which ones -- and that a bevy of small consumer products should come embedded with Capri in 2014.

Now that you, the consumer, would be aware of it. When PrimeSense's technology is in works, the user should have no clue what's making it happen. "Our partners are the ones making the applications interesting," said Maizels. "What we want is the end user to feel magic, and we will see magically things happen."

Matterport's 3D scanner Matterport

I met up with Maizels at a hotel suite where PrimeSense had demos set up with several partners, each of which is putting current PrimeSense sensors to work in impressive ways. One lets you turn any surface into a touch screen; another, called Matterport, has built a 3D scanner so customers can create, say, precise 3D renderings of a building or home in minutes; it all connects via the cloud so you can see the images on a tablet or computer. For now, the device is large -- appealing mainly to insurance companies and real estate agents. But all this will get smaller.

PrimeSense, of course, isn't alone in the this movement toward touchless control. My colleague Daniel Terdiman wrote about several companies here at CES -- including PointGrab and Elliptic Labs -- that are creating ways to incorporate touchless gestures on mobile devices, including the iPad.

The tech behind it all is different, however -- PointGrab uses a 2D camera, for instance -- and it'll be curious to see what applications evolve. Maizels wouldn't tell me what the device makers are envisioning for when they incorporate Capri into their smartphones. But he said to think about applications that involving the rear-facing camera. That could mean, among other things, ways to capture 3D movies from your phone.