Apple might be working on yet another entirely new product category.
Facebook-owned Oculus VR, Samsung, HTC, Microsoft, and others are developing virtual-reality or augmented-reality headsets. Even Google, which already launched a budget cardboard offering, is rumoured to be going big on VR in 2016. But what about Apple? Well, rumours and patents and acquisitions and talent poaching all suggest Cupertino has something in the works.
This is Pocket-lint's Apple VR headset rumour guide, where we lay out all the latest leaks and reports about the possibility of an Apple-branded VR/AR headset, including things like release date, features, and pricing. We plan to update this piece overtime, so keep checking back for up-to-the-minute news about what's happening with Apple and its virtual reality plans.
Apple VR/AR headset: Release date
Whoa, Nelly! Let's slow down a bit here. We're still in early-days territory with all this stuff. We don't even know if there is an actual, physical headset on the way. Although, where there's smoke, there's usually fire, and Apple has filed patents, acquired-VR related companies, and hired VR experts as of late. But still, there's no way to accurately peg a release date based on that.
However, here's some interesting bits to chew on: During Apple's financial Q1 2016 earnings call, Tim Cook, the company's chief executive, was asked a question about virtual reality. Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray - you know, the guy who has insisted for several years that Apple is secretly crafting a mind-blowing smart TV - asked Cook if he had "any high-level thoughts" on VR.
"I know you can't talk about new products," Munster said to Apple's CEO, "Do you think this is more of a geeky niche, or something that could go mainstream?" It's a fair-enough question, to which Cook casually and quite simply responded: "In terms of virtual reality... uh, no. I don't think it's a niche. I think it can be… it's really cool, and has some interesting applications."
That's it. Short and sweet. But several reports are emphasising that Cook didn't dismiss the idea or discount any recent rumours, so now he has everyone thinking about whether Apple is investing in virtual reality hardware and applications. Piper Jaffray of course expects Apple to release a VR headset as early as 2017. But we all know how good it is at predicting Apple's roadmap.
Apple VR/AR headset: VR vs AR
The Financial Times believes Apple is joining a growing focus on VR and AR, but it's also unclear about whether Apple plans to release a full-blown virtual reality headset, or a device that'll require an iPhone to enable mobile VR, or if the device will be more of an augmented-reality device akin to Microsoft’s Hololens. But Apple is developing a VR/AR project as a separate unit.
Okay, so we're going to get technical for a minute: virtual reality devices are typically headsets that you wear like a chunky pair of glasses, and inside that headset you'll see a screen that displays a 3D image. The headset can also track your head movement, and the image should seamlessly move with your head to create the experience of a virtual, immersive world.
These headsets can be powered by computers, such as the Oculus Rift by Oculus VR, or they can be smartphone-powered (with the phone also serving as the headset's display), like the Samsung Gear VR or even Google Cardboard. Pocket-lint has a round-up of the best VR headsets available to buy right now, and as you can see, the prices range pretty dramatically.
Now, as for augmented reality, it typically consists of see-through glasses that allow you to view the the world around you, while a image is displayed in front of your eyes. Google Glass (displays 2D) and Microsoft's Hololens (displays 3D) are recent examples of AR headsets. AR and VR technologies are hot at the moment, so we can imagine Apple testing out both.
Apple VR/AR headset: Patents
Putting aside what we assume Apple is doing, let's look at the facts, or rather its approved patents (though keep in mind patents only indicate a company's interests and are not proof that an actual product or service will one day come to fruition):
- In 2013, an Apple USPTO patent appeared, describing a "goggle system for providing a personal media viewing experience... may allow the user to move the display generation components for alignment with the user's eyes... may include data processing circuitry operative to adjust left and right images generated by the optical components to display 3-D media". The patent was filed in May 2007.
- Then, in 2015, the US Patent and Trademark Office granted 41 new patents to Apple. One of them detailed a VR headset for iPhone. According to PatentlyApple, the patent is about a video headset that uses an iPhone or iPod for its display. It mentions remote and exterior controls, the ability to connect to a device’s camera, and the use of haptics and other sensors. That patent was filed in 2010.
Apple VR/AR headset: Acquisitions
Apple isn't just filing VR-related patents. It's also buying up VR and AR-related companies:
- Metaio: Apple acquired this German company in 2015. Its software blends the physical world and computer-generated elements into video displays, according to the company. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but we know Metaio's augmented-reality software is used in applications in retail, industrial, and automotive markets, including virtual product showrooms and in manuals, such as IKEA's.
- Faceshift: Apple also acquired this Zurich-based startup in 2015. It is responsible for the motion-capture technology used in the latest Star Wars film. Faceshift develops software that allows 3D-animated characters to mimic the facial expressions of an actor. Star Wars used it to animate the faces of CGI characters, for instance. Check out Pocket-lint's 5 possible reasons as to why Apple bought Faceshift.
- PrimeSense: In 2013, Apple acquired PrimeSense, the company behind the original Xbox Kinect. At the time, many assumed Apple bought the Israeli company to somehow support or enhance its foray into the television industry. Microsoft chose to develop the Xbox Kinect in-house with the Xbox One, courtesy of PrimeSense, so it was easy to draw a parallel between a motion sensing camera and an iTV from Apple.
- Flyby: In early 2015, Apple acquired Flyby Media. It's an augmented reality start-up that enables mobile devices “see” the world around them. Flyby’s team has been helping Google develop software for Project Tango.
Apple VR/AR headset: Talent
The Financial Times has claimed Apple is busy assembling a large team comprised of "hundreds" of experts in both virtual reality and augmented reality. It's even built prototypes of headsets that could give Oculus Rift or Hololens a run for their money. Apple has poached or snagged several high-profile engineers with experience in VR within the last few years, including:
- According to a report in the Financial Times in January, Apple recently hired Doug Bowman, a leader in the field of 3D user interfaces. His experience includes being a computer science professor at Virginia Tech and the head of the school's Center for Human-Computer Interaction.
- Apple grabbed Nick Thompson after he spent nearly three years at Microsoft as a principal HoloLens engineer working on audio hardware, according to his LinkedIn profile.
- Before going to Apple in 2015, Bennett Wilburn also worked at Microsoft, focusing on "machine learning technology for human activity recognition". His experience includes Lytro, where he developed image processing software, and Huawei.
- Graham Myhre is another Lytro alum. He developed specialised camera lenses and sensors, but now he works at Apple "investigating new display and optical technologies for future generations of Apple products", according to his LinkedIn profile.
Apple VR/AR headset: Prototypes
Not much is known so far about whether Apple has already built a VR headset, as there has yet to be any physical leaks or photo evidence, but several reports, including this January one from The Financial Times, have claimed Apple has been building prototypes of possible headset configurations for several months. It's unclear if these prototypes are VR or AR.
But we also know Apple has long experimented with VR headsets. A team reportedly built prototypes and filed patents in the mid-2000s, though it eventually scrapped the project. Also, several Apple job adverts popped up last year seeking software engineers to “create high performance apps that integrate with virtual reality systems for prototyping and user testing”.
Apple VR/AR headset: Conclusion
Obviously there is no hard evidence yet of an Apple VR headset. But we know the company - based on Cook's comments, as well as Apple patents, acquisitions, and recent hires - is really interested in virtual reality hardware and applications. We're assuming Apple is already working on something tangible, but that doesn't mean a product will ever come to market.
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