Why are we so interested in Apple's Virtual Reality deeds?

By Souvik Das | Updated 4 May 2016
Why are we so interested in Apple's Virtual Reality deeds?
  • Patent approvals, employee recruitments, analyst reports and a circulating whisper of the “next big thing” adds up to only one thing — Apple’s foray into VR is not too far away. Will this have the same impact that the iPhone had on the smartphone industry?

With Virtual Reality becoming a widely appreciated field, numerous stalwarts of technology are taking their nascent steps into Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and the seemingly endless possibilities that these fields represent. Swiping the thin air with your hand to switch to the next music track is almost a reality, and live virtual music concerts will soon see bands playing to a virtually packed Slane Castle meadow, with virtual audiences. In such times, with Sony’s Morpheus, Microsoft’s HoloLens, Facebook’s Oculus, Google’s (very basic) Cardboard, HTC’s Vive and Samsung’s Gear VR virtual reality headsets, there’s only one name that is missing — Apple.

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While the Cupertino-based behemoth has remained tight-lipped about its involvement with virtual reality, there have been signs and traces, and some of them have been very prominent. Apple had filed for a patent for its virtual reality headset design back in 2008, which was finally approved in February 2015. In reply to Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster’s question on Apple’s involvement with Virtual Reality, CEO Tim Cook stated that he did not think virtual reality is a “niche”. He said, “It’s really cool and has some interesting applications.” This line itself brings us to the point, why are we talking exclusively about Apple entering the field of Virtual Reality?

Why are we talking about Apple entering VR?
This falls in line with what Apple did to the smartphone industry with the iPhone — make it really cool with a number of interesting applications. Apple has recently been acquiring a number of startups in the space of VR and AR, some of the notable ones being Flyby Media, Metaio, Emotient Inc. and PrimeSense. Each of these companies specialise in certain aspects of VR and AR, and have previously worked with major companies. Flyby Media has expertise in computer vision, a brand of technology that facilitates 3D mapping and placement of real objects in virtual landscapes. Metaio simulates real furniture in 3D space, PrimeSense makes camera hardware to enable computer vision and Emotient Inc. uses artificial intelligence and advanced sensors to gauge facial expressions.

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Adding to this, The Financial Times had reported that Apple has an underground team of researchers working on a Virtual Reality project. Recent designations and job listings across the Internet happen to suggest the same. Nick Thompson, part of Microsoft’s HoloLens project, has been roped in by Apple, and so has Doug Bowman, a human-computer interaction researcher at Virginia Tech. Incidentally, Bowman was also a lead author of the book, 3D User Interfaces: Theory and Practice, and was one of the first to receive Microsoft’s $100,000 grants to work on the HoloLens. With a number of large-name acquisitions taking up desks at Apple, we are somewhat certain (hopeful, rather) that they are working on something that will define what Apple does the best — bring in the best of an industry together.

Apple has also recently added a $30 Virtual Reality Starter Pack by View-Master, that uses an iPhone to push for smartphone-based augmented reality content, similar to Google Cardboard. The VR kit is available for sale on Apple’s online store, and was added to the store’s product portfolio without any major announcement. Apple’s physical stores do not sell this unit, and quite unsurprisingly, this might just be Apple’s way of testing the waters by initiating a gradual user experiment of how iPhone users react and adapt to the addition of VR and AR to the devices. Additionally, some manufacturing data from the inlands of China hint at large scale orders for dual-lens smartphone cameras for an upcoming smartphone. Dual-lens camera setups are crucial for a device to gauge three-dimensional spaces, and replicate the real space within a virtual matrix. There are no confirmed reports, and these rumours might be some of the most obscure hints in recent times, but it may just be the iPhone 7.

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"Apple has a secret base of researchers working on VR, and they aren't in a hurry"

Its employees seem to be working to the tune of this, too. Jeremy Bailenson, Director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Laboratories, stated at a Wall Street Journal CIO 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.” Prototypes for virtual reality devices have been known to exist inside Apple’s labs, but there is no word yet on how, when, or exactly what they will pan out to be. Apple is certainly interested in virtual reality, and with its patent, acquisitions, recruitments and frequent trips down to advanced cognitive science laboratories, you cannot really wonder why we think Apple is edging ever so close to its first proper step into Virtual Reality.

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How will Apple introduce itself to the world of virtual spaces?
Over time, Apple has garnered a reputation of being the masters of matured innovation. Take for instance the moment when Steve Jobs drew the first ever iPod out of his pocket and the world gasped — portable music players were already gathering steam, the world was looking for a mobile phone-like device to carry entire playlists on, and the Internet was opening up with artists taking the digital route (iTunes was one of the earliest pioneers of genuine music, seeing the massive interest and demand that lawsuit-stricken Napster gathered).

The first ever iPhone was launched in January 2007, opening up the world of smartphones to the most fluid end-user experience one could have hoped for, and practically established the place of flagship smartphones as products worth the asking price. The first iPad had the same kind of ballooning effect, opening up the niche of tablets for multitaskers on-the-go. These remind of the first ever Macintosh, and its ground-shaking advertisement directed by Ridley Scott, back in 1984. The Macintosh was the first ever personal computer that touched the finesse that would sit well in a drawing room, and not a mean plastic device with chunky plastic all over.

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While the expectation of such romance in the field of technology is difficult to sustain, seeing how we and the world have moved ahead and grown wiser with time, there remains a hope for Apple to come out with something that would bring the technology closer to the masses, for (of course) a hefty price. As for now, speculations suggest that Apple’s first steps in AR/VR may not be a complete virtual reality headset, but an augmented reality implementation that would find acceptance in real-life situations. While there is no doubt that Apple will certainly enter the virtual world of reality, its stance is what holds the potential to change the VR/AR industry as we know of it today. The technology has been booming, but has not spread out to everyone just yet. There is the constraint of refining gesture-laden controls, controlling simulated movement, removing button operations from headsets and a number of such factors, which will undoubtedly be answered. The question that remains today is, how?

Take for instance, if you wear a headset and find yourself in the world of Tony Stark, the ideal situation is for a virtual keyboard to swim up before your eyes. Sensors fit around the front rim of the device would then sense the placement of your hand (the real one), and you can tap into thin air to press the relevant key in the virtual world. Virtual Reality can immerse you into a virtual world that until a few years ago sounded like a distant dream, but who will bring out the first complete package?

Having seen Apple do similar deeds in different fields time and again, it will not be too surprising if Apple’s frequent trips to Stanford’s laboratories grow into all of the VR dreams that enthusiasts have, and much more.

When do we expect Apple to do so?
A Gene Munster analysis expects Apple to take two years before it comes out with its own custom VR headset that will allow specific apps and games to operate in virtual space. While a few have expected Apple to announce a VR-related product this March, the analysis expects Apple to take around two years to add virtual reality to its Made for iPhone (MFi) program, and subsequently see a separate section on the App Store that would redirect to VR-enabled content. This comes from the same firm that heard Tim Cook being neutral but positive on virtual reality, leading to the reports of Apple’s secret VR army.

"The secret VR weapon might replace the iPhone, in the next 15 years"

The same analysis has given light to the impact of Apple’s present interest in AR/VR. Jaffray stated in his analysis, “These initial steps are expected to be the first in a path toward phasing out iPhone in favor of a mixed reality headset or similar device. That reality, however, is not expected for at least 15 years. We believe 10 years from now Generation Z will find reality inefficient, (and) the concept of an 'inefficient reality' is evident through smartphone use today — the precursor to mixed reality — offering users the ability to find more information as needed.”

This somewhat adds up to make sense, as the next decade and half has the largest prospect to alter the way we live, laugh and travel (hoverboards are becoming real!) from today. We do not expect Apple to jump into the industry just now, and going by its history, it possibly won’t. 2016, however, is the year VR/AR technology has been expected to take leaps and bounds in but not become mainstream. This may suit Apple perfectly, and its style and attempt to infuse grandeur and habit within audiences that have never experienced something before. It may have lost its gleam a bit of late, but this may just be its opportunity to make up for what the world missed in 2015.

Estimate = 1 year, till inception.

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Souvik Das
The one that switches between BMWs and Harbour Line Second Class.
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