The evidence is clear: Apple's next big thing will be virtual reality
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A growing amount of evidence indicates that Apple is developing something with virtual reality technology. The dream: to immerse viewers in a totally computer generated world.
VR has been a dream for futurists for decades, but the technology has never been good enough for it to take off. Apple releasing a product would obviously be a big deal for the industry.
Apple is notoriously tight-lipped, but a project of this size is hard to keep under wraps.
Let's run down the evidence:
1. Apple is staffing up
Apple already has a division working on augmented and virtual reality technologies, and the team has already been building prototype headsets for months, according to a report by the Financial Times' Tim Bradshaw.
LinkedIn profiles and publicly available job listings concur. For instance, the company has hired Doug Bowman, a researcher from Virginia Tech who studies human-computer interaction, and specifically, 3D interfaces - the kind of user interface that a new Apple virtual reality headset would require.
Apple has also recently hired Nick Thompson, who previously worked on Hololens, Microsoft's augmented reality headset.
2. Apple has bought at least four startups which specialized in related technologies
Although Apple hasn't made a multi-billion dollar splash in the space like Facebook did when it bought Oculus for $2 billion, it's still a major buyer when it comes to VR startups.
Recent purchases include:
- Metaio, a German company that made an app that visualizes what digital furniture might look like in your home.
- FaceShift, a company that can transform a user's face into a 3D digital cartoon in real-time.
- FlyBy Media, a company that had previously worked with both Google and Apple on computer vision, a technology closely linked to augmented and virtual reality. Sophisticated computer vision technology is needed in order to situate digital objects in their surroundings in a way that convinces the user they're real.
- PrimeSense, which it bought for $360 million in 2013. PrimeSense made camera and video sensor hardware specifically tuned for computer vision applications.
And those are just the ones we know about.
3. Apple Stores recently started selling a product that turns an iPhone into a virtual reality headset
Apple's online store now stocks Mattel's new View-Master, a product that turns an iPhone into a virtual reality headset. It's an indication that Apple knows it can't ignore phone-based virtual reality, which has been primarily pushed by Google, so far.
4. Apple is suddenly a regular visitor to Stanford's virtual reality laboratory
One of the first stops for a Silicon Valley technologist interested in exploring virtual and augmented reality is Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, operated by Jeremy Bailenson since 2003. In the past week, he shared an interesting anecdote:
"Apple hasn't come to my lab in 13 years - except they've come three times in the last three months. They come and they don't say a word, but there's a data point for you," Bailenson said.
5. Rumor has it that the iPhone 7 will include a new type of camera useful in augmented reality
Component makers in Asia are rumbling that there have been some very large orders placed for dual-lens camera components recently, with some pointing to Apple.
Having two separate lenses and sensors on a smartphone camera can provide a number of advantages, but it might be most important for augmented reality. (Augmented reality is where computer-generated images appear to be superimposed on the real world, like with Microsoft's HoloLens or Google Glass. It's different from virtual reality, which totally immerses viewers in another world.)
The approach would mean that the iPhone could potentially estimate the distance to walls or other obstacles, which unlocks several computer vision possibilities, and would be essential for a high-quality augmented reality experience.
6. Apple has filed patents in the space
Just look at this image from an Apple patent granted earlier this year:
Apple files patents all the time, and not all of the ideas in those patents find their way into real products. But given the other mounting evidence, this patent seems significant.
7. When asked about it, CEO Tim Cook couldn't deny his interest
During an earnings call, Cook answered a question about Apple's virtual reality ambitions, and his response was clearly not a denial - although it's not a confirmation, either.
"I don't think VR is a niche," Cook replied. "I think it's really cool and has some interesting applications."
The next big thing?
Apple might need its VR initiative more than the VR industry needs Apple.
Apple needs a new hit - the iPhone is a wildly successful product, but it faces its first sales decline ever.
Plus, there's a chance that Apple VR ends up being a niche product, counter to what Cook believes. Apple was able to make smartphones into a must-have product for everybody, and it was expected to do the same thing for smartwatches. But so far, the Apple Watch doesn't seem to be getting the same traction, at least anecdotally.
Whatever Apple puts out would be competing with other giants in the tech world who have been working on these products for years.
Microsoft's HoloLens can already achieve incredible feats like projecting an NFL game onto a coffee table. Facebook's Oculus is the system of choice for gamers, and it actually goes on sale this year. And Google's inexpensive Cardboard has enough momentum that even Apple has decided to sell a version.
Apple may be looking to make a splash in virtual reality, but it's already a little late to the party.
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