A team of Cambridge engineers are celebrating being announced as the winners of the £50,000 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award, for engineering a solution which saw computer giant Microsoft claim a Guinness World Record. Sir Garth Morrison, Chairman of the MacRobert Trust, presented the team with a £50,000 prize and the solid gold MacRobert Award medal at the Academy’s Awards Dinner at London’s Guildhall on Monday 6 June.

The team members sharing the prize are: Team Leader Professor Andrew Blake FREng FRS; Software Development Engineer Mat Cook; Principal Research Scientist Dr Andrew Fitzgibbon; Senior Research Software Development Engineer Toby Sharp; and Research Scientist Dr Jamie Shotton - all based in Cambridge.

The five engineers from Microsoft Research won the award for their machine learning work on the human motion capture in Kinect for Xbox 360, allowing controller-free gaming and opening up a whole new future for human interaction with computers. In the two months after its launch in November 2010, Kinect sold 8 million devices, making it the fastest selling consumer electronics device in history.

The Cambridge team first became involved with the project in September 2008 after receiving a request for help from colleagues in the US who were developing controller-free computing. Before Kinect, equipment for motion-capture was commercially available but required instrumentation of the moving human subject, in the form of markers placed on all body joints. Previous attempts at markerless motion capture would fail under rapid body motion, meaning an effective system was not available.

The Microsoft Research laboratory applied machine learning techniques to build a capability to analyse depth images independently. It classified pixels in each depth image as belonging to one of 31 body parts, drawing on previous work from the Cambridge laboratory on the recognition of objects in photographs. The classifier was trained and tested using a very large database of pre-classified images, covering varied poses and body types. It was engineered so efficiently that it uses only a fraction of the total available computing capacity – essential to the practical success of Kinect.

While gamers across the globe have benefitted greatly from the team’s innovation, the future uses of ‘Kinect’ style technology seem endless. Beyond gaming, Microsoft has announced the planned launch of the Kinect software development kit (SDK) for Microsoft Windows, first for academics and hobbyists and later on a commercial basis. This will broaden its scope to the control of computers and other machines, at a distance, by speech and by gesture, making technologies more readily accessible to the people who use them. For example, surgeons could benefit – Kinect could enable them to use a hands-free computer in the operating theatre.

John Robinson FREng, Chairman of the MacRobert judging panel, said: “Everything about Microsoft Research’s Kinect project makes it a worthy winner of this prestigious award. Yet again, British engineers have solved a seemingly intractable problem that stumped the rest of the world – motion capture in real time has made Kinect hugely successful and what was originally developed as a game is now poised to revolutionise the way we use computers in the future.

“Professor Blake and his team have taken Kinect from a first speculative idea to a retail product in just two years and their technical knowledge and achievements are quite outstanding. This is world-beating engineering by a world-leading team based in the UK. Everybody thinks Microsoft is American - but this superb engineering was done by British engineers at their lab in Cambridge. As a British engineer, I feel proud of them.”

Professor Blake said: “On behalf of the entire team, we are absolutely delighted to receive the MacRobert Award. We were certainly up against stiff competition and I commend our fellow finalists for their excellent entries.

“For our work on machine learning for Kinect, and indeed the field of computer science, to be recognised by the top engineering award in the UK, makes us very proud. I would like to thank the team involved at Microsoft Research, our colleagues in the Xbox team at Microsoft, and the Royal Academy of Engineering, for making it possible for us to receive this prestigious honour.”

Notes for editors

The MacRobert Award

First presented in 1969, the MacRobert Award honours the winning company with a gold medal and up to five team members with a tax-free prize of £50,000 between them. Founded by the MacRobert Trusts, the Award is now presented by the Academy after a prize fund was established with donations from the MacRobert Trusts, the Academy and British industry The MacRobert Award

2011 finalists

· Microsoft Research, Cambridge – Kinect for Xbox 360

· Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and NP Aerospace, Porton Down - Segmented Ceramic Armour

· Jaguar, Castle Bromwich - XJ Light Weight Vehicle concept

· Radio Design, Shipley - Universal Combiner for cellular network sharing

2011 judging panel

John Robinson FREng (Chair)

Former Chairman and Chief Executive of Smith and Nephew, Chairman of George Wimpey, Railtrack, Low and Bonar, UK Coal and Consort Medical. Operating Partner, Duke Street Capital

Keith Davis (Trustee, The MacRobert Trust)

Formerly Director, Strategy and Planning, the Royal Academy of Engineering

Professor Nicholas Cumpsty FREng

Emeritus Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Imperial College London

Professor Richard Darton FREng

Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford

Professor Ian Liddell CBE FREng

Consultant, W I Liddell Engineering Ltd

Professor Adrian Long OBE FREng

Formerly Professor of Civil Engineering at Queen's University Belfast

Professor Richard Parry-Jones CBE FREng

Formerly Group Vice President, Product Development, for the Ford Motor Group

Professor Peter Selway FREng

Formerly Director of Operations for Nortel, Research Fellow, Imperial College London

Ian Shott CBE FREng

Director, Shott Consulting Ltd

Dr Martyn Thomas CBE FREng

Director, Martyn Thomas Associates Ltd

The Royal Academy of Engineering

Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

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Jane Sutton on 0207 766 0636