Report: Apple Has Assembled a Crack Team of VR and AR Experts

Apple has hired a team of hundreds of workers as part of a plan to develop a new set of virtual reality headsets, the Financial Times reported last week.

The report came on the heels of Oculus VR finally taking preorders on its Rift virtual reality system, which it began offering for US$599 as of Jan. 6. The Rift is scheduled to begin shipping on March 28.

Apple has poached a number of experts in the field from other companies, including Microsoft and Lytro, according to the FT report.

Lytro last fall launched Lytro Immerge, which it billed as the world’s first professional light field solution for cinematic virtual reality.

Assembling a Team

Apple reportedly acquired Flyby Media, a firm that specializes in augmented reality and has developed a technology that lets mobile phones “see” the world around them, according to the FT.

Flyby was one of the early partners with Google on Project Tango, involving research that combined 3D motion tracking with depth perception for mobile devices, which in theory would allow them to navigate the world in a way similar to humans. Flyby developed an app called “Flyby Messenger,” which allows people to leave messages on physical objects.

Apple previously acquired smaller companies with expertise in the virtual and augmented reality field, including the AR firm Metaio, which it purchased last year.

Apple reportedly also made a key new hire: Doug Bowman, a professor of computer science and the director of the Virginia Tech Center for Human Computer Interaction, has joined the company, according to the FT report.

Great Expectations

Although there’s been no confirmation, there are “plenty of signs that Apple is looking into both augmented reality and virtual reality products,” said Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

Apple likely will release a new virtual reality headset either later this year or by early 2017, Krewell said, noting that the company expressed an interest in the virtual reality sector in the past, prior to CEO Tim Cook making comments on the subject during last week’s Q1 conference call.

“In terms of virtual reality, no, I don’t think it’s a niche,” Cook said during the call. “It’s really cool and has some interesting applications.”

Apple could decide to create an iPhone headset similar to the Samsung Gear VR headset, which would not take long to develop, Krewell said.

Samsung, in collaboration with Oculus, in 2014announced the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition, a gaming headset optimized for use with the Galaxy Note 4.

The company followed the Gear VR Innovator with the 2015 release of a consumer version of the headset, which was optimized for a larger set of phones, including the Galaxy Note 5 and the Galaxy S6 series.

A more powerful VR headset, in the realm of the Oculus Rift, would take a bit longer to develop, Krewell said.

Apple needs to look for new market categories to conquer, suggested analyst Jeff Kagan.

“iPhone growth is slowing, so they need to create some new growth sectors. That’s Apple’s challenge today,” he said.

“Apple throws ideas against the wall on a regular basis,” Kagan told the E-Commerce Times. “Only those ideas that stick does Apple start to build. Then, like we have seen with many other Apple ideas, it could be years before anything hits the marketplace.”

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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