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(Pocket-lint) - Chief Tim Cook made a comment today during Apple's conference call, and now the world is running with it.

Here's the backstory: Apple posted its quarterly earnings today, smashing records once again. During the financial Q1 2016 earnings call afterward, Cook was asked a question about virtual reality. Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray - ya know, the guy who has insisted for 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 the 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. Keep in mind Cook's comments follow a report that Apple just hired Doug Bowman, a pioneer in the field of 3D user interfaces.

Apple has hired several VR engineers in recent years however, including a principal Microsoft HoloLens engineer, who was focused on audio hardware, as well as another Microsoft alumnus, who worked on machine learning technology for "human activity recognition". There's also Graham Myhre, who worked at Lytro, designing specialised camera lenses and sensors.

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Myhre's LinkedIn states he's now "investigating new display and optical technologies for future generations of Apple products". On top of all that, Apple has VR-related patents under its belt, and it acquired Metaio (develops AR platforms for phones and tablets), Faceshift (turns facial expressions into digital animations), and PrimeSense (a 3D sensor startup).

Piper Jaffray of course expects Apple to release a VR headset as early as 2017. But we all know how good that investment research firm is at predicting Apple's product roadmap.

Writing by Elyse Betters. Originally published on 27 January 2016.