Apple has been working on virtual reality solutions for years -- since way before Steve Jobs threatened to “destroy” Android and way before Google Glass shipped. Since CES 2016 Apple’s VR plans have attracted attention, and could have an augmented reality bearing on its plans for Apple Car.
Apple spends around $9.6 billion per year on research & development, $2.4 billion in Q1 FY 2015 alone, so it’s no great surprise the company has looked at this and other technologies. It has been working on VR since at least as early as 2006, when it filed a video headset display patent later approved back in 2009. Apple now holds numerous VR-related patents and last year won another for a virtual reality device that turns your iPhone into some form of VR headset.
There’s an extensive history to Apple’s development and it is kind of interesting in light of refreshed claims around Apple’s VR development that Google has put the “iPodfather”, Tony Fadell, in command of the Glass team. Fadell originally led Apple’s VR efforts.
Fadell’s got competition. Just last month, Apple hired one of the leading US experts in VR, Doug Bowman. The company has also invested in a host or related teams and technologies. Apple bought mobile-AR startup Metaio in 2015. More recently it purchased Flyby Media, and has acquired Faceshift and Emotient, two other firms with interests in the space. Among a range of other purchases that could have a bearing on its plans, Apple acquired PrimeSense in 2014.
That it’s only now Apple CEO, Tim Cook, concedes VR is “really cool and has some interesting applications,” hints we may soon see some results from a decade of research.
So what might Apple’s VR plans be?
Apple made a big point of talking about its installed base of one billion active iOS device users during its recent fiscal call. Apple CEO Tim Cook called this: “an unbelievable asset for us,” noting this has accelerated “the growth of our services business, another large and important source of recurring revenues.”
This makes it likely services will be part of the company’s plans, particularly games and movies.
Apple has been recruiting game engineers with experience in virtual reality “since at least last year,” 9to5Mac reports.
Apple’s purported plans to produce original content for Apple TV could open opportunities up for exclusive VR presentations. The company last year worked with its old chums from “that” Irish band and Chris Milk and his VR company Vrse to offer a VR music video, such as this one:
Future services don’t need to be confined to consumer experiences like movies and games. These could include:
- VR shopping experiences in virtual Apple stores, with the core technology made available to other retailers.
- VR solutions for managing remote connected infrastructure.
- VR solutions for health, such as operating theaters where surgeons offer treatment to remote communities.
Such sophisticated attempts tally well with an earlier comment from Cook when he told the New Yorker: “We always thought that glasses were not a smart move, from a point of view that people would not really want to wear them. They were intrusive, instead of pushing technology to the background, as we’ve always believed,”
(Unless you are already wearing glasses, of course – take a look at Recon’s iOS-equipped snow goggles for an idea of how AR could become incredibly useful in some circumstances.)
I also think VR dashboards for the future Apple car make a lot of sense. Take a look at the Orange Business Services/WayRay Navion augmented reality navigation system, which projects holographic GPS imagery and driver notifications onto the car windshield.
Apple clearly believes it can find ways to make useful solutions people want using these technologies. Daniel Ives of FBR & Co predicts Apple will be “very aggressive on the virtual/ augmented reality front through organic as well as acquisitive means in 2016.”
Whatever it has planned, it has already made big commitments, the FT reports Apple now has “hundreds of staff from a series of carefully targeted acquisitions” alongside staff “poached from companies that are working on next-generation headset technologies including Microsoft.”
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