Virtual reality is no longer a pipe dream. Thanks to Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and the upcoming PlayStation VR, virtual reality is now a real thing that people can experience in their own homes – provided they’re prepared to pay around $1000 or more for the privilege. To anyone who has experienced VR, it’s clear that it’s the next evolution in interactive entertainment.
Any tech company that wants to stay relevant is working on VR hardware and software. It should come as no surprise, then, that there are heavy rumours around Apple working on its own virtual-reality device.
Details around the project are incredibly scarce. Beyond a patent for a rudimentary, Google Cardboard-like device for an iPhone, and some curious recent hires, there’s very little information out there. It’s hard to imagine Apple bringing anything overly new or successful to the table as its walled-garden approach to product design means it’s missing out on much of the knowledge sharing the VR community uses to improve user experience. It’s also difficult to imagine a fixed-software proposition going down all that well seeing as such an approach failed spectacularly for Oculus.
So, if you’re curious about what Apple could be up to with its top-secret VR device, here’s everything we know so far.
What is Apple’s virtual-reality project?
1. Apple VR has been a long time coming, but that doesn’t mean success
According to patents, Apple has been looking into VR and stereoscopic imaging devices for over a decade now. Its latest patent illustrates using an iPhone as the device screen, but doesn’t seem to be building on any of Apple’s previous VR patents.
Sony has been in the VR and stereoscopic imaging space for just as long and, unlike Apple, has brought many products to market using the technology. Now, with PlayStation VR pre-orders now open, it’s clear to see how the company built on years of user feedback to improve optics, comfort and the raw technology underpinning it all. Apple, however, doesn’t have that advantage.
While time means it can learn from mistakes others have made, Apple’s secretive nature goes against the open and community-driven spirit of the current VR scene. Other companies are helping each other out to improve the industry, whereas Apple wants to just roll in and steal the show. Without a base of support from others, no matter how long it’s been working on hardware, it’s likely to flop.
2. An Apple VR headset is likely to only work on Apple products
Apple has a history of developing hardware and software that only works within its own ecosystem, and this could very well be the case with an Apple-based VR product. If Apple is working on VR software, it’s likely it will only work on MacOS, iOS or TVOS. If Apple is building a VR headset, it will probably work across both MacOS and Windows computers. If it’s a mobile VR offering, however, it’s highly unlikely it would support Android.
Would such an approach damage Apple’s stake in the VR game? It depends on what it’s planning to achieve with its VR headset. If it wants to bring it to an army of mobile users who can’t currently experience VR because they’re using iPhones, it’ll likely succeed.
If, however, it’s aiming for the home VR market, it has to go up against Oculus and HTC, which are now established names in this sector. While Apple certainly has brand-name clout, it doesn’t resonate as much with high-end PC users who are currently the target market for household VR devices.
3. If Apple is working on VR tech, it won’t be out for a while yet
Apple is never ahead of the curve when it comes to tech. Many of the innovations it’s been praised for, such as the smartphone, tablet and mouse, were actually just refinements of someone else’s invention. Currently, VR is only marketable to a certain section of society, and they aren’t primarily Apple users.
For one, powerful computers or devices are needed to really make the most of VR. A typical Apple customer won’t have this kind of top-of-the-line kit in their homes. Apple’s own computers aren’t currently supported by the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift due to their power limitations: Oculus founder and Rift creator, Palmer Luckey, stated last year that Oculus would only arrive on Mac “post-decent Apple hardware release, whenever that is”.
For Apple to create a true consumer VR device, it will need to wait until more people have access to the hardware that can power it.
If Apple is looking to build a mobile VR device, it would make sense to use the upcoming iPhone 7 as the starting point.
4. Apple’s VR team points more to augmented-reality experience
Apple has been expanding its team of engineers and designers for its VR project and, from recent hires and rumours, it looks as if though it’s angling towards an AR device rather than a VR one.
Apple’s biggest hire was computer-science professor Doug A Bowman back in January of this year. Since then it’s believed that Apple has hired engineers from Microsoft’s HoloLens team, along with people from Lytro – the light-field imaging company.
Apple has also acquired companies working in the AR/VR technology space, presumably to bolster its AR/VR division.
In 2013, Apple snapped up PrimeSense, a company focused on motion-based 3D interactions. In 2015, Apple picked up augmented-reality startup Metaio, and acquired Faceshift – a facial-scanning company that could map faces into games quickly and accurately. This year has seen new companies join with Apple, such as a technology company that uses machine learning to read human emotions, and another that uses image recognition and augmented reality to allow people to tag real-world objects with messages.