Apple VR investigation: Why a virtual reality headset is on the cards

2016 will be remembered as the year that real VR landed. TheOculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR will grab the headlines, and don’t forget that Google is tipped to have a stab at a Gear VR-rivalling headset as well. There’s plenty to look forward to.

Apple VR headset investigation

But while HTC, Facebook and Sony prep for launch, don’t be surprised if Tim Cook and company are keeping a close eye on the big VR rollout.

Apple has never claimed it is looking at doing VR, but we wouldn’t be at all surprised if it did. The evidence is already starting to mount up.

Piecing together the speculation, job listings, patents and acquisitions, here’s our look into Apple and its VR plans.

Apple on VR

So what does Tim Cook actually think of VR? Judging by his comments made during Apple’s latest earnings call, the immersive tech is an intriguing prospect. “In terms of virtual reality, I don’t think it’s a niche. I think it can be… it’s really cool, and has some interesting applications,” he said.

More recently, Apple’s decided to sell a virtual reality headset on the Apple Store for the very first time. The retro View-Master iPhone VR headset popped up online in February and could be the company’s first attempt to test the waters with fanboys and fangirls to see how much they really love virtual reality.

But it’s not like Apple hasn’t dipped its feet in VR yet either. Back in October last year, Apple teamed up with U2 and virtual reality app Vrse to produce a 360-degree video to tie in with the new Apple Music service. This could be the first of many experiments the company plans before an all out assault on virtual reality.

The patents

Patents are often the strongest indication of what a company has up its sleeve. Sometimes though, they are reminders of ideas that were shelved.

You can go as far back as 2009 to see that Apple have been thinking about headset displays. The patent filed for a new iPod video headset display would apparently let users record video and zoom in and out of the footage. Apple also thought it would be great for viewing live events, letting you get closer to the action when you’re way out in the cheap seats.

The biggest evidence that VR is already on the agenda arrived in February last year. Apple was awarded a patent (image above) for a head mounted virtual reality headset. It uses the iPhone as the display much like the Gear VR does with Samsung’s smartphones or Google Cardboard. The patent even talks about supporting additional accessories like spare batteries, physical control inputs and a cooling system.

Building the dream Apple VR team

In true Apple style, this is a company that likes to recruit the best of the best. When it was building the Apple Watch, they picked up one of the top designers that worked on the Nike Fuelband and snapped up Paul Deneve, the former CEO of Yves Saint Laurent.

According to a report in the FT, Apple already has a “secret team… of experts in virtual and augmented reality” who have “built prototypes of headsets” and “includes hundreds of staff from a series of carefully targeted acquisitions, as well as employees poached from companies that are working on next-generation headset technologies.”

There’s even a job listing that goes as far back as 2014 that shows Apple was looking for a virtual reality developer to design “next generation software experiences” and “create high performance apps that integrate with Virtual Reality systems for prototyping and user testing.”

Apple’s decision to appoint Doug Bowman, a leading virtual reality (and augmented reality) researcher is seen as a clear signal of intent. Bowman, moved from his post as director of its centre for human interaction at Virginia Tech. He’s spent time designing user interfaces for fully immersive VR experiences and also won a $100,00 grant from Microsoft last year to work on a mixed reality data study centred around its HoloLens holographic headset.

Splashing the cash

Why do the work when you can just buy the companies that have done the work already? Apple is not the first and certainly won’t be the last to snap up the expertise to help build its hardware. And Apple has certainly been busy on that front in regards to its VR ambitions.

“Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans,” is the go to line when responding to these acquisitions. But it is possible to join the dots to get an idea of what it might have planned.

Let’s start with Metaio first. The German startup is best known for its augmented reality apps and has already worked with the likes of Ferrari to take advantage of its 3D tracking tech. So why is that a big deal? Apple could well be looking at augmented reality as well as virtual reality. Both are set to be a big deal and this could be Apple covering the bases.

Next is Faceshift, a Swiss startup that specialises in generating CGI avatars and capturing expressions using real-time motion capture. Faceshift has previously used Microsoft’s Kinect camera and Intel’s RealSense 3D camera to demo its innovative software. The technology was reportedly used in the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens as well. Motion capture is a big deal for gaming and current headsets like the HTC Vive are only starting to get to grips with it for VR to help inject some realism.

PrimeSense, the Israeli startup that built the 3D sensor for Microsoft’s Kinect camera on the Xbox 360 was picked up for a cool $360 million. The motion sensing tech could of course be used for a range of hardware currently under the Apple umbrella, but it would certainly be a good fit for VR. Motion sensing is vital for control and movement so this could offer the same kind of slick 3D movement that software like Leap Motion promises.

The latest acquisition was Flyby Media, an augmented reality-focused startup that has expertise in 3D tracking and has worked with Google in the past. It built an app that let’s you scan real world objects with your phone’s camera and uses image recognition to group objects into a collection. The key here is tracking, which would be pretty useful for building a headset.

When will we see it?

That’s the big question. This is a company that doesn’t tend to rush things out until they’re ready. The original iPhone was apparently in the works for around five years and with so much still to learn about bringing VR into the home, we could be looking at a similar roadmap.

And will it be VR or an AR headset to rival Microsoft’s HoloLens? There’s plenty of evidence here to suggest that is on the agenda as well. Whatever Apple has planned, we’re sure that “one last thing” moment at a much hyped event in the future will be a big one.


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