A Cal ‘Kinect-ion’

While at Marvell, Jack Kang landed the project of a lifetime: developing the mystery chip to power Microsoft’s paradigm-shifting Kinect technology.While at Marvell, Jack Kang landed the project of a lifetime: developing the mystery chip to power Microsoft’s paradigm-shifting Kinect technology.Some engineers wait a lifetime for a project like the one that Jack Kang (B.S.’04 EECS) landed when he was barely 26.

In the fall of 2008, Kang was settling into a new marketing position at Marvell, a Santa Clara-based semiconductor company, when Microsoft came knocking with a mysterious assignment for the company. Working on an undisclosed product, the computing giant needed a team to design a complex chip for manufacture on a massive scale.

“This project was very secretive,” recalls Kang, who had shifted from hands-on chip design to marketing management at Marvell. Marvell got the Microsoft contract, but “we didn’t really know what it was for,” says Kang. Many months into the development of a specialized microprocessor—often touted as a system’s “brains”—he got his answer. The mystery chip was destined for Kinect, Microsoft’s controller-free and immensely popular electronic game sensor device.

Introduced last November, Kinect uses sophisticated visual and voice recognition to run electronic games, movies and other entertainment. A companion to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 video gaming system, it became the fastest-selling consumer electronics gadget in history, selling 8 million devices in 60 days.

Kinect’s appeal came as no surprise to Kang. “It was a giant leap,” he says of the technology that lets users interact with media through body motions and voice commands. In fact, when Kang first learned about Kinect, he was so dazzled by the concept that he wondered if it could actually be pulled off.

His work on the Kinect chip spanned two years. Acting as the project champion in a “do-whatever-it-takes” capacity, Kang managed the effort from the earliest negotiations through a series of designs to manufacturing. In all, more than 100 Marvell chip designers, marketing representatives, software engineers and others participated in a process that witnessed its share of evolutionary curveballs.

For the first six months, the Marvell team focused on what Kang believes would have been one of the most powerful mobile or consumer chips on the market. Shortly after the chip was completed, Microsoft asked for an even higher performing version. But the company soon switched course, deciding to put more of the computing functions into the Xbox instead of Kinect, Kang says.

Ultimately, Marvell engineers were asked to build a general purpose chip capable of controlling voice recognition and sending data to the Xbox. The team wound up modifying a chip already in development. That chip, as it turned out, was one that Kang had helped design in his earlier capacity as a Marvell engineer.

PHOTO BY ABBY COHN(Photo by Abby Cohn.)Excited by his role in unleashing Kinect, Kang sees many possibilities for human-machine interaction. “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg of what this device can do,” he says, envisioning future Kinect systems that help the disabled and the elderly, and play a role in medical treatment and procedures.

Beyond Kinect’s intended use for home entertainment, the $150 system has already triggered a flood of creative applications for its cameras, 3-D sensing and other features. At UC Berkeley, graduate student Patrick Bouffard installed a Kinect on a small four-rotor robotic helicopter to enable it to sense its height above the floor and detect objects in its way. Other concepts have included video-conferencing, surveillance and a navigational aid for the blind.

With his boyish smile and animated personality, Kang, now 29, is at least a decade younger than most of his professional peers. He has developed 11 patents, mostly in the field of CPU (central processing unit) technology. “Everything I needed to know I learned in CS152!” he quips. Kang took that computer architecture and engineering class at Berkeley Engineering and became a teaching assistant his senior year.

Born in Taiwan and raised in the South Bay, Kang was drawn to a career at the intersection of engineering and business. “I felt you could have more of an impact,” he says. At Berkeley, he minored in business administration and was powerfully influenced by his experience as a TA. Hired as a Marvell engineer in February 2006, he was increasingly tapped to showcase company products in technical presentations for clients. “I had the mindset of marketing,” says Kang, who also enjoyed the social interaction that came with it.

Twice promoted since 2008, Kang now serves as director of Marvell’s application processor business unit. Today, with a 12-member staff, Kang manages Marvell product lines for e-readers, gaming, education, tablets and other devices. Long gone is a work schedule with room for lunchtime volleyball and soccer games. “There’s always someone up in some time zone,” Kang observes.

Kang is eager for the next project of Kinect-like proportions to come his way. “Technology is always evolving,” he says. “I certainly hope I have something that beats it.”

Topics: EECS, Devices & inventions