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Sony gives PlayStation VR a hand by acquiring gesture-tracking tech

Sony has purchased Softkinetic, a company known for making depth sensors for virtual and augmented reality technology.

Sony's PlayStation Move controllers working with its virtual reality headset. James Martin/CNET

Sony has acquired Belgian company Softkinetic, which makes image sensor technology for use in virtual and augmented reality, for an undisclosed sum.

The Japanese electronics conglomerate is well known for its own imaging technology, which can be found in its cameras and phones, but Softkinetic's focus is on making body-sensing and image recognition technology. In the past Sony has licensed Softkinetic's technology, but now will have full access to the company's "time of flight" technology, which times how long light takes to bounce off an object into its sensor in order to measure distance.

Sony will be combining Softkinetic's imaging technology with its own, "with the aim of developing the next generation of range image sensors and solutions, not only in the field of imaging," the company says, "but for broader sensing-related applications as well."

The acquisition may bulk up the capabilities of its PlayStation VR virtual reality headset -- previously known as Project Morpheus -- which is expected to launch next year. Sony is one of several heavy hitters delving into virtual reality, an area that has drawn the interest of Facebook, Samsung, Google and more. Many in the tech field believe it's the next big thing because of its ability to transport users to a different world with a simple headset.

The technology may also feed into the PlayStation 4, which does not yet have an image-sensing system to rival Microsoft's Xbox One Kinect module.

Softkinetic's sensors work in a similar way to those installed in Microsoft's Kinect. A diffused laser shines on an object and the sensor will carefully count how long it takes for the light from the laser to reflect back and hit it. This allows the sensor to calculate exactly how far away the object is, allowing for gesture and hand tracking, as well as mapping the space immediately in front of it.

"Sony is the perfect partner for Softkinetic, and we look forward to leverage Sony's formidable assets to further drive the 3D vision market," Softkinetic's CEO told Venture Beat.

Sony has not given any further details about exactly what it will do with the technology just yet. The company has said that it doesn't expect to see any impact on its financial results following the acquisition until the end of March 2016.