Is Apple expanding into virtual reality?

After a series of hires and acquisitions, rumors swirl that Apple is building a secret virtual reality product. 

Michaela Rehle/REUTERS
A man tests a mobile phone, an iPhone 6 by Apple in a shop in Munich, Germany, in January.

Following Facebook and Google, Apple appears to be prepping to enter the virtual reality and augmented reality markets. The Financial Times published a report on Friday indicating that the company is building a secret team of virtual reality experts.

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook recently announced Apple’s most profitable quarter yet. Yet with sales for some of Apple’s best-loved products, such as the iPhone, slowing down, the technology behemoth is examining new areas for growth.

Now it seems that Apple may be expanding in a new direction for the company: virtual and augmented reality.

Recent developments in virtual reality technology have caused many to speculate if Apple had plans for expansion into the new market.

“Apple currently owns the computer in your pocket,” says virtuality reality company 8i owner Linc Gasking, “and it needs to be part of the next big user interface if it wants to retain that ownership.”

The iPhone manufacturer has been notoriously close mouthed on the subject of virtual reality. Facebook will release its pricy Oculus Rift headset in early 2016. Google released Cardboard over a year and a half ago. So where is Apple's VR product?

Earlier this year, Apple’s hiring of Virginia Tech professor Doug Bowman raised a few eyebrows. Dr. Bowman’s research interests lie in virtual reality related fields. When Apple refused to comment on Bowman’s hiring, Apple watchers speculated that the company was quietly stacking its virtual reality deck.

On Friday, the Financial Times published an article that appears to confirm suspicions. Apple recently acquired an augmented reality start-up called Flyby Media. The company refused to comment on the acquisition.

Apple’s interest in virtual reality is quiet but long standing. In 2008, Apple filed a patent for a virtual reality headset similar to Google’s Cardboard. In 2013, Apple acquired a motion sensing company called PrimeSense, as well as a German augmented reality start up Metaio in 2015.

The company has also recently recruited other experts like Bowman, who are interested in virtual reality or related fields. Apple’s recent personnel and start-up acquisitions have spurred rumors that it has a secret team devoted to virtual reality development.  

It seems that virtual reality is everywhere.

In August, the creator of Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset, Palmer Luckey, graced the cover of Time Magazine. Events from the NBA to the democratic debates have been broadcast in virtual reality. Pop star Rihanna has released a virtual reality music video.

Virtual reality’s biggest proponents predict that VR interfaces will be the equivalent of television for future generations.

Enthusiast and head of developer relations at a VR company, Bruce Wooden told The Atlantic that just as our generation and preceding generations had television rooms, the VR room will be the recreation room of the future.

Mr. Wooden said, “A segment of this early-adopter, hardcore-gamer population, that’s what they’re going to do. They’re definitely going to have VR rooms.”

Many, like Wooden, who are familiar with virtual reality technology are convinced that it will go big. According to Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash, “Once you’ve experienced it, it’s obvious that it’s going to change the world in a big way.”

It appears that Mr. Cook agrees.

“In terms of virtual reality, no, I don't think it's a niche,” said Cook on a conference call about Apple’s financial results last quarter, “it's really cool and has some interesting applications.”

If the Financial Times report is right, Cook could be playing it cool as Apple develops its next big thing.

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