Apple’s plan for virtual reality is a hot topic. For the most part, you hear speculation over drinks and maybe once in awhile a patent or a relevant acquisition pops up in your feed. When Apple holds their earnings call, journalists and investors all have the same questions as well – usually met with vague yet optimistic answers about the future of VR. CEO Tim Cook responded on last week’s earnings call with the following, “In terms of VR, I don’t think it’s a niche. It’s really cool and has some interesting applications.”
Even with these sound bites and flashes of news, there is no denying that Apple appears to have serious plans for virtual reality and augmented reality. And with all the speculation being shared, now is probably a great time to review everything that we know of the company’s secretive virtual reality endeavors.
1. They’re Hanging Out at the Stanford VR Lab
The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple employees have recently started making visits to Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Although the Stanford VR lab is a community gathering place for tech executives to learn more about virtual reality, Apple has only recently begun making trips to the lab. The Director of Stanford’s VR lab, Jeremy Bailenson, shared as much during a CIO WSJ conference, “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.”
2. They Have a Dedicated VR Team
Tim Bradshaw from The Financial Times reports that Apple has a secret dedicated team just working on VR and AR. The “large team of experts” in virtual reality and augmented reality, which number into the hundreds, has accelerated in growth over the past year. Apple has apparently acquired talent from Lytro, a Silicon Valley start-up that launched the first consumer “light field” camera, as well as Microsoft’s HoloLens team.
3. They Acquired Flyby Media
Also reported by Bradshaw for The Financial Times, Apple has acquired Flyby Media, an augmented reality start-up that lets mobile devices “see” the environment around them. Flyby’s team of experts have notably worked with Google to develop software for 3D positioning technology initiative Project Tango.
4. Apple Just Hired Doug Bowman
A big move on Apple’s part as well is the hiring of leading virtual reality and augmented reality expert Doug Bowman. The computer tech professor from Virginia Tech literally wrote the book on 3D interfaces. Interestingly enough, Bowman was the recipient for one of the first $100,000 HoloLens research grants from Microsoft for a study on “collaborative analysis of large-scale mixed reality data.”
5. Apple Purchased Metaio
Last year TechCrunch reported that Apple acquired Metaio ($32 Million), an augmented reality startup that began as an offshoot of a project at Volkswagen back in 2003. Metaio’s technology powered some of the most popular AR applications in the market like Ikea’s virtual catalog, Audi’s digital owner’s manual and Ferrari’s AR showroom app. The company is a significant player within the AR space and has often shown off demos using Apple products like the iPad.
6. They Own Faceshift
MacRumors let on that Swiss real-time motion capture firm Faceshift was acquired by Apple. Faceshift technology has been used in the latest Star Wars film to make non-human characters more human-like in their expressions. The virtual reality technology can be used to generate animated avatars and other computer generated figures that capture a person’s facial expressions in real time. We have seen Faceshift’s motion capture tech used in conjunction with Primesense 3D sensors, which brings us to our next one.
7. They Also Own Primesense
Back in 2013, Apple acquired the Israeli motion-sensing company PrimeSense for $345 million. The company is best known for having taken their 3D depth sensor array and licensing it to Microsoft for the Kinect. When it comes to quickly capturing three dimensional models for VR or AR, Primesense would be a leading choice. Primesense has also worked with MetaIO and Faceshift after the 2013 acquisition, which probably led Apple to take a closer look at those companies as well.
8. Apple Has VR Patents
Apple was awarded a patent by the USPTO for a head-mounted virtual reality system that uses the iPhone as the display. Maybe similar to something like the Samsung Gear VR, but this Apple patent application dates back to 2008. So it would seem, Apple has been considering VR for awhile, only becoming more of a reality recently.
9. Apple Now Sells the View-Master
Even with Apple filing patents for a VR viewer that can be used with an iPhone, Apple showed minimal interestest in supporting Google Cardboard related hardware. At the beginning of this year, we began seeing Mattel’s View-Master VR headset pop up for sale on Apple’s website. The $29.95 viewer turns your smartphone (iPhone) into a window for augmented and virtual reality content.
10. Apple Music VR Videos
Back in October, we broke the story that Apple Music partnered up with U2 and VR film studio Vrse to launch their first VR music video. The music video itself displayed Apple Music branding at the beginning. Apple also showed the VR video to U2 fans on “The Experience Bus,” a vehicle that went on tour and had Macs hooked up to Oculus Rift headsets to view the experience. Oh, and we can’t forget Beats headphones for immersive audio.
Even though all the information reported about Apple and their plans for VR is speculation, the company appears to be poised to venture into virtual reality. Considering the recent acceleration of acquisitions and hiring of talented VR industry experts, whatever this secret project Apple is working on, we can’t wait to find out more.