Apple Builds Secret Virtual Reality Team, But for What?

Apple has built what was a secret team to develop virtual reality technology, according to unnamed sources cited by The Financial Times of London. The team is comprised of hundreds of employees from a series of acquisitions in the virtual reality (VR) and augmented-reality (AR) space, as well as hires from outside of Apple.

Virtual Reality Googles with an Apple Logo

The newspaper said Apple's most recent acquisition is Flyby Media, a company with technology that allows devices to "see" the world around them. Other acquisitions include PrimeSense, a motion sensing company, and Apple has been poaching employees from camera maker Lytro, Microsoft's Hololens project, and others. Apple also hired Doug Bowman, a VR expert from the academic world.

Like the Project Titan electric car project, Apple has apparently committed significant resources in hiring such a large team, especially for a project still in the early days. The question is what does Apple want to do with VR, and what kind of product(s) does it envision?

Some kind of headset is the first thing that leaps to mind, but Chief Design Officer Jony Ive said in an interview with The New Yorker that the face "was the wrong place" for a computer. That interview was Apple Watch-centric, and it's possible that Sir Jony was doing a bit of humble misdirection, but...

CEO Tim Cook said something similar in another interview, saying, "We always thought that glasses were not a smart move, from a point of view that people would not really want to wear them. They were intrusive, instead of pushing technology to the background, as we've always believed. We always thought it would flop, and, you know, so far it has."

That was also an Apple Watch-centric comment, and it was made in direct observation of Google Glass, which has indeed flopped. But...

Steve Jobs was infamous for denigrating existing technology only to release an improved version of that technology a little later. Tim Cook and Jony Ive don't have a track record of doing so. Instead, Mr. Cook's record is expressing some level of interest in technology—or more often the underlying needs some given technology is trying to address—when Apple is working in that area.

He did so just this week during Tuesday's conference call with analysts, saying, "In terms of virtual reality, no, I don't think it's a niche. I think it can be—it's really cool and has some interesting applications."

When it comes to VR and AR, there are two ways to experience it: through your eyes or being jacked in the hard way, meaning through direct manipulation of our brains in some sort of science fiction way that we are decades away from seeing. Which surely means that Apple is developing some kind of headset-based technology, despite the above-mentioned protestations.

Apple's interest in VR began roughly a decade ago under Steve Jobs, when Apple filed multiple patents in the VR space. Those efforts were shelved because they it was too early, but the FT report also said Apple's interests were reawakened in 2014 when Facebook bought Occulus Rift, a VR headset startup that was focused on the gaming space.

Which again makes me think that Apple must surely be developing a headset.

Goggles made with help from Shutterstock.