VR and mobile seem to go hand-in-hand in 2018, with the likes of Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s DayDream readily available for Android users – but what about those us with iPhones? Sure, there are third-party mobile viewers that provide a basic VR experience, but it’s nothing compared to what Samsung and Google offer for Android users. If Apple can provide high-end AR experiences with ARKit, when will it do the same with VR?
That might change soon, though. For years, Apple has been rumoured to be developing a VR headset – there has been a range of VR-related hires, patents and more that suggest it’s in the works. Here, we discuss all the latest Apple VR headset news alongside patents, possible release date rumours and acquisition info, such as its recent acquisition of the headset startup Vrvana.
If Apple isn’t developing a VR headset then chances are it’ll announce an AR headset instead – you can find out more about Apple’s AR Glasses here.
What’s the difference between VR and AR?
First, a quick refresher on terms, as there’s a little confusion on the difference between augmented and virtual reality. VR headsets are mounted on the head in a similar way to ski goggles, and completely block your view of the outside world. The VR headset tracks your head movement, and the 3D images displayed inside the headset move accordingly. This makes it appear as if you’re wholly inside a 3D ‘virtual’ world.
Virtual reality hit the headlines in the 1990s when video games companies like Sega and Nintendo attempted to create and sell VR products to the public.
The technology wasn’t ready then, but a more recent attempt called the Oculus Rift created by Oculus VR in 2012 was developed with modern 3D technology and development has been wowing people ever since. Eventually, Facebook bought Oculus VR in 2014 for more than $2bn, and the VR headset is now available to buy in the UK.
Augmented reality, on the other hand, is where the glasses are see-through and you can still see the world around you, but an image is displayed in front of your eyes.
Apple is known to be a trailblazer, but it’s still part of the Silicon Valley tech industry (albeit a more secretive one). If Google, Facebook and Microsoft are all working on VR and AR solutions, you can bet your bottom dollar that Apple also has a prototype in its labs.
Is Apple working on a virtual reality headset?
Rumours have been circulating online for years about Apple developing a virtual reality headset, much like its main competitor Samsung. There are quite a few rumours supporting that theory, which started way before the news of Google Glass-like AR glasses started doing the rounds.
Apple hires virtual reality developers
If we cast our minds back to November 2014, some may remember that Apple posted a job listing for app engineers experienced with 3D graphics, virtual reality and augmented reality. The job posting was quickly removed, but it specifically asked for developers to build “high-performance apps that integrate with Virtual Reality systems for prototyping and user testing.”
Since then, Apple has made a number of relatively high-profile hires for its virtual reality project, including Microsoft’s Nick Thompson, an engineer that worked on the HoloLens audio hardware for three years. Apple also hired Bennett Wilburn, another Microsoft employee, who focused on “machine learning technology for human activity recognition” with his previous experience including the likes of Lytro and Huawei.
Along with ex-Microsoft employees, Apple has also hired Doug Bowman, a man considered to be a leader in the field of 3D user interfaces. His previous experience includes working as a computer science professor at Virginia Tech, as well as being the head of the school’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction. Lastly, we have Graham Myhre, a man that previously worked at Lytro developing specialised lenses and sensors, but is now “investigating new display and optical technologies for future generations of Apple products” – at least that’s what his LinkedIn says anyway.
As well as this, a report from the Financial Times claims that Apple has actually successfully developed a virtual reality prototype, and is actively testing it behind closed doors – no doubt by the spree of VR-related hires at Apple over the past few months. Though a prototype is floating around, the FT source doesn’t go into detail about what we can expect from Apple’s seemingly upcoming headset.
As first reported by Business Insider, Apple has also hired Zeyu Li, who previously worked at Magic Leap the AR startup. Yury Petrov was also hired, a man who had previously worked on Oculus.
Apple has since made another high-level hire for its AR/VR venture – this time from the company that provides the graphics processor for the iPhone 7. Apple confirmed back in March 2016 that it was interested in buying Imagination Technology, but that never panned out – and it looks like it didn’t really matter, as the company appears to have got what it wanted.
The company has hired several senior employees from the company, with the most notable being ex-Imagination Technology COO John Metcalfe. According to his LinkedIn profile, he has been working at Apple since July 2016, leaving IT after almost 20 years. It’s speculated that Metcalfe and others are working on a new GPU to power the AR/VR experience that Apple is planning, although there’s no new information beyond that.
Apple buys a number of VR-related companies
Apple’s interest in VR has been signposted by its numerous acquisitions of companies from that sector.
One of Apple’s biggest and most popular acquisitions was back in 2013 when the company bought PrimeSense, the company that developed the original Xbox Kinect, for a whopping $345 million. That’s a huge amount of money to buy a company for technology that might not be used, in our opinion anyway. While many first assumed that it’d tie in with Apple’s rumoured TV set (or the Apple TV itself), it seems more suited to a possible VR/AR headset.
It didn’t stop there either, as 2015 was a busy year for Apple – and we’re not talking about the number of new products. The first acquisition of the year was Metaio, a German company that Apple acquired back in May 2015. Metaio was a relatively well-known company with regards to augmented reality, powering many of the popular AR applications being used today – including Ikea’s virtual catalogue, and Ferarri’s AR showroom app.
Since being bought out by Apple, Metaio has gone quiet – heading to its website will offer you a brief overview of the company, a contact email address and not much else. Mysterious.
Along with acquiring Metaio, Apple also acquired Faceshift in November 2015. While it isn’t an AR-specific company like Metaio, Faceshift created the motion-capture technology that was used in Star Wars films. The firm is known for developing software that allows CGI-animated 3D characters to ‘copy’ the facial expressions of the actor. While this could be linked to a virtual/augmented reality headset, it could also be used on FaceTime – think Snapchat-esque lenses.
Apple has confirmed the acquisition of Flyby Media, a company well-known for developing technology that allows smartphones to ‘see’ the world around them. Notably, the company has worked with Google in the past to develop the image-recognition abilities found in Google’s Project Tango.
Though the website is now down (typical of an Apple acquisition), Flyby Media described itself as “dedicated to building new technology that can elevate, rather than replace, our real-world experiences.” and boasted a team with knowledge in the areas of large-scale SLAM, indoor navigation, sensor fusion, image recognition as well as 3D tracking.
In August 2017 Apple acquired SensoMotoric Instruments. While it may not be a household name, the German company specialises in eye-tracking technology – in fact, the company was at CES 2017 in Las Vegas showcasing modified HTC Vive and Gear VR headsets equipped with eye-tracking technology. As usual, Apple has confirmed the purchase but didn’t disclose its intentions for its assets, but it speaks volumes about its upcoming VR plans.
But the latest move was reported in November 2017. According to TechCrunch, Apple has bought a VR headset startup named Vrvana for roughly $30m. Vrvana makes a headset called Totem which it describes as ‘extended reality’, by which it means a combination of VR and AR.
Tim Cook discusses VR at Apple quarterly earnings call
While people have been speculating that Apple will be making a virtual reality headset for well over a year now, the company hasn’t officially acknowledged its interest in the VR market – until now. During Apple’s quarterly earnings conference call in January 2016 (where Apple announced its biggest quarterly profit ever, $18.4 billion) Apple CEO Tim Cook fielded a question regarding virtual reality. His response? “In terms of VR, I don’t think it’s a niche. It’s really cool and has some interesting applications.”
Okay, so it’s not quite confirmation that the company is actively developing a virtual reality headset, but let’s look at the past. Back in 2014, before the announcement of the new Apple TV, Tim Cook was quoted saying that TV was an area that Apple had a “great interest in” – a year later, we had a completely new Apple TV boasting its own App Store and gaming capabilities.
Cook also called the idea of smartwatches “interesting” back in 2013, way before the launch of the Apple Watch. So as we said, it’s not confirmation, but it gives us a good idea of what to expect in the (possibly near) future.
Apple sends employees to specialist VR lab
If Apple isn’t developing a virtual reality headset, then why has it sent employees to Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab several times over the course of three months? As first reported by the Wall Street Journal, Director Jeremy Bailenson made the remark regarding Apple visiting the centre during a Wall Street Journal conference in California.
The Virtual Human Interaction Lab based at Stanford University is the first place that businesses will go before developing a virtual reality headset – Mark Zuckerburg, CEO of Facebook even went along shortly before it acquired Oculus.
Speaking at the event, Bailenson remarked: “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.”
As ever, Apple is keeping tight-lipped on the subject but this, along with comments made by Tim Cook claiming that VR isn’t a niche and that it has interesting applications suggests that an Apple-branded VR headset is in the works, although it could still be a way away.