Apple calls in the rocket scientists to explore new worlds

Apple hires NASA AR/VR expert to help it boldly seek the new tech frontier

Apple, VR, AR, iPhone, iOS, Jeff Norris, Tim Cook,

The summary: Apple has recruited National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) new technology expert, Jeff Norris, to help build its augmented reality solutions. It’s yet another insight into Apple’s plans to break in the last few days.

Rocket science

It is not precisely rocket science: Bloomberg reports that Norris founded the Mission Operations Innovation Office in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, so while he didn’t develop the rockets he was behind attempts to create virtual and augmented reality control systems with which to control robots and space craft. As founder of NASA’s JPL Ops Lab, he developed robotic control technologies and holographic communications solutions.

He also provided Hololens headsets to astronauts living on the Space Station and was involved in development of software that controlled Mars explorer rovers from Earth.

He joins Apple’s rapidly growing augmented reality team, which is reportedly developing AR glasses and AR features for iPhones. (I wonder if the team is looking at LifePrint features for future iPhones?)

The A(R)-team

UBS earlier this month claimed Apple has around 1,000 engineers working on AR technology. The team is allegedly led by former Dolby Labs executive Mike Rockwell.

The team also includes leading engineers from other AR firms, including Yury Petrov from Oculus, Magic Leap’s Zeyu Li, Microsoft’s Nick Thompson and Doug Bowman, Director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech.

While it may not be relevant, it was recently revealed that Apple has hired two more space heads, John Fenwick, who led Google’s spacecraft operations, and Michael Trela, head of satellite engineering.

Apple also recently hired Final Cut plugin developer Tim Dashwood, known for making 360VR Toolbox, which suggests the company is now looking to invest in better tools for VR creation.

We all expect first signs of iPhone integration with these systems this year, Apple is clearly developing facial recognition in moving images – this is a feature within its new Clips app.

Apple Glass

Apple has made significant acquisitions in this sector in recent years, including (but not necessarily confined to) purchase of Emotient, Faceshift, Perceptio, Metaio, Flyby Media, Polar Rose and PrimeSense.

These investments mean Apple already owns some interesting patents for applications in this space, such as this one for removing objects in real time.

Apple has been developing eyeglasses for some time. This apparently continues, reading between the lines of the company’s leaked accident book.

It may well be worth the attempt: A Fluent survey last year revealed that 23 percent of Americans would buy a virtual reality headset from Apple.

Investment in VR/AR solutions hit $1.5 billion in the twelve months leading to Q1 2017, according to Digi-Capital, who predict big increase in M&A activity across the next 12-months.

The new Apple

It seems likely Apple will be one of the big companies driving M&A activity in AR. Apple CEO, Tim Cook sees the potential of AR to further extend the iPhone-led digital transformation of everything. He has described himself as “high on AR in the long run”.

“We think there’s great things for customers and a great commercial opportunity,” he said.

To understand the enormous potential it is important to change the way we think about Apple.

Apple is no longer the plucky upstart attempting to save itself with one great product.

It is now a giant company that is big enough and well-resourced enough to fight in any ring it chooses to enter. It is no longer confined to consumer markets. It can also explore how its technologies can transform vertical industry sectors.

We know Apple has a huge interest in healthcare.

That interest extends much further than wellness features for Apple Watch.

When it comes to AR and VR, health is a sector that is ripe for transformation – think how mobile healthcare in conjunction with AR will provide diagnosis to remote communities, or effective robotic field surgery in disaster zones.

There is no real reason Apple’s technologies cannot be part of this evolution.

AR also has potential in autonomous cars, communications, education, exploration, manufacturing and more.

Why wouldn’t Apple want to put its logo inside all these industries? This isn't just about looking for Pokemon. The new Apple is looking for proliferation. Why else is the new HQ so large?

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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