Why Apple Hasn’t Missed The Boat On Virtual-Reality

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When Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion, Mark Zuckerberg said virtual reality was the natural follow-up to mobile as a platform. And while Apple might have missed the boat on Oculus, has Cupertino really missed out on virtual reality?

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Apple has been investigating this area for the better part of a decade — well before the Oculus Rift gaming headset appeared on Kickstarter.

More importantly, Apple owns many related patents, including what look to be some fairly comprehensive ones covering head-mounted displays.

Back in November 2006, Apple filed a patent for an HMD (head-mounted display) system, which created images using a remote laser light engine. Unlike previous designs for HMDs , Apple’s system was more compact, while providing superior image quality. Created in part by Tony Fadell (best known as the father of the iPod, and the founder of Nest), the technology was designed to immerse the viewer in a movie, music video or videogame.

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Apple’s initial 2006 proposal for a head-mounted display.

Apple then built on this concept with a more comprehensive 2008 patent for a pair of Apple goggles, designed to let users view media and play games on a bigger screen than their mobile device’s built-in display.

Including a few neat touches, Apple’s patent even described how each screen could be automatically adjusted for users who wear glasses, or to simulate a 3-D effect. The patent also describes how the goggles could connect wirelessly to other iOS devices — a bit like Apple’s CarPlay system — and would be able to identify users by tracking eyeballs, voice and fingerprints.

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Apple’s 2008 patent predicted a number of key advances for Apple.

Two names are particularly associated with Apple’s exploration into the field of head-mounted wearables. The first of these is Richard DeVaul, who Apple hired in January 2010 to be its Senior Prototype Engineer, with the job of investigating and and rapid-prototyping new technologies and features across Apple’s product line. DeVaul had plenty of experience in wearable computing, and as a Ph.D. student wrote his dissertation on “Memory Glasses” — a heads-up display focused on serving as a wearable, proactive, context-aware memory aid.

The second key researcher in this area is John Tang, who is named as a co-inventor on the 2008 patent. Tang joined Apple in 2006 as its Senior Engineering Program Manager.

Apple could be well-placed to compete with Google and Facebook in the area of head-mounted displays.

Interestingly, neither of these two currently work at Apple: DeVaul joined Google in 2011, and now works on evaluating potential moonshots(!). Tang, meanwhile, left Apple in 2008, going on to work for Palm, Amazon’s Lab126 and currently Sonos.

But that’s not to say that Apple doesn’t have other employees who have worked on HMDs. Both current Product Design manager Chris Prest and Evans Hankey, who is part of Jony Ive’s design team, have explored this area while at Apple.

The company’s recent wearable-sensor expert hires are thought to be working on Apple’s much-vaunted iWatch, but as the 2008 patent suggests, HMDs could also be used in conjunction with various biometric sensors. Fingerprint recognition was still a pipe dream for Apple when it filed its 2008 patent application — but became a reality thanks to the acquisition of AuthenTec in 2012, which led to the Touch ID function of the iPhone 5s.

The team behind Siri, meanwhile, brought significant advances in Apple’s voice recognition capabilities, which weren’t possible in 2008. Although Apple doesn’t own the company, in 2014 Israeli startup Umoove debuted its eye-tracking technology for iOS, which has several key advantages over rival technologies. Earlier this year there was also a rumor that Apple’s proposed iPad Pro device could feature eye-tracking technology.

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Despite Google’s work with fashion designers, Glass headsets still aren’t likely to find a mass market.

Couple this with Apple’s perceived trustworthiness in the marketplace (certainly compared to Facebook’s, which has already seen at least one developer announce that they are abandoning Oculus Rift post-acquisition), and the company could be well-placed to compete with Google and Facebook in the area of HMDs.

It’s also worth pointing out that the hiring of executives like former Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve to work on “special projects” could help turn HMDs into acceptable mass-market items — something that Google Glass hasn’t yet managed to do.

Of course, as with all of Apple’s patents, just because Apple has patented an idea doesn’t mean that it will necessarily find its way into an actual product. Patents can be attempts to block or mislead competitors, or else may refer to a concept that Apple has looked into and not deemed worth following up. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the iPod, iPhone and other previous Apple innovations, it is that the company will often bide its time to watch how competitors fare in the marketplace before making its move.

Either way, if Oculus Rift and Google Glass really do change the world the way Facebook and Google are convinced they will, Apple will be far from left out.

  • http://www.ahles.nl/ Patrick Ahles

    Why on Earth should Apple get into the 3D business, just because Facebook bought Oculus? Do you get paid per word you publish?

    • Luke Dormehl

      I’m not saying they should (I point out that Apple may well have looked at this area and deemed it not worth getting into) but that, if Google Glass or OR take off like some (read: Mark Zuckerberg etc.) are predicting, Apple has been looking into this area for some time and therefore hasn’t missed-out on a potential big new technology. Personally, I’ll wait and see what happens with VR. This is, after all, an area we’ve been hearing about since the early 90s.

      • http://www.ahles.nl/ Patrick Ahles

        So this whole article is pure speculation (MAY have looked, IF Google Glass or OR take off). Like so many articles on this site.

    • Greg Lanciotti

      wow, dumb……

      • http://www.ahles.nl/ Patrick Ahles

        Because?

  • http://www.sk1wbw.wordpress.com/ Wayne Williams

    Virtual Reality is a joke. Go outside and see Real Reality. Go to the beach, go hiking, go biking. This world doesn’t revolve around tech geekiness like VR and Glass.

    • lowtolerance

      This comment is a joke. It’s like the idea that Virtual Reality could provide experiences beyond what Real Reality offers has never even crossed your mind.

      • http://www.sk1wbw.wordpress.com/ Wayne Williams

        See my above comment.

      • lowtolerance

        I’m not sure what I’m supposed to get out of your response to maestro72x, other than the obvious conclusion that you’re a quick-tempered, unimaginative luddite with no business commenting on a tech blog. Congratulations, though, on your irrational disdain for computer gaming and VR. You must be very proud of yourself for being so set in your ways that you can’t conceive of how other people might find such things to be more fun than a fucking cribbage game.

        Also, anyone who lives anywhere near OBX would know that there are no skimpy bikini clad hotties at the beach this time of year. Best case scenario, you might see some old people walking their dogs. Fun times.

        Source: I happen to live in Nags Head.

      • http://www.sk1wbw.wordpress.com/ Wayne Williams

        Congratulations. I specified no time of the year, did I?

      • lowtolerance

        The implication was that you could do this any time of the year. The fact that you can’t totally undermines your already flimsy argument.

        Shouldn’t you be playing bridge or whatever with your retirement home friends?

      • http://www.sk1wbw.wordpress.com/ Wayne Williams

        Maybe you can’t read, but I made no implication. I said GO OUTSIDE. No reference to seasons.

      • lowtolerance

        Are you going senile, or have you always been this dumb?

        GO OUTSIDE and shut the fuck up already, you hypocritical moron.

      • Greg Lanciotti

        yeah Wayne, you are totally wrong. VR is going to be huge! As time goes on, watch how the world changes before you’re eyes, as it gradually adopts a VR-centered culture.

    • maestro72x

      You my friend need to be better edumacated. There are SO many applications for VR its going to change the world as much as the personal computer did back in the 70s. Its sad that 90% of the older generation cant see the promising applications for this sort of thing just because they dont understand it. I laugh at your very comment because obviously you are on your computer typing this. Its very self deprecating dont you think? Unless of course you got your grandkid to post this for you on your behalf then props to you to keep your statement grounded. Advice for you: Play Real World scrabble, drink Ensure every day and dont vote for anything you dont understand.

      • http://www.sk1wbw.wordpress.com/ Wayne Williams

        No need to get personal, smart ass fucker. I tell ya what. You sit in your mommy’s basement with those geek ass glasses on your head looking at computer generated shit and I’ll walk 5 minutes to the public beach access here on the Outer Banks where I live and enjoy the ocean and look at skimpy bikini clad hotties.

      • Shields

        Lol Wayne what ARE you doing on a tech blog like this?

        You seem very campy coming on here and talking about “Real Reality”. You come off preachy and your voice is hard to hear from so high up on that horse.

        Lots of people enjoy both outdoor activities and dropping a few hours on video games.

        Don’t come on a tech blog and preach please. You just make yourself look like an outdated fool.

      • http://www.sk1wbw.wordpress.com/ Wayne Williams

        So I have to have your permission first? Really? How old are you? And how long have you been using tech?

      • Shields

        Well clearly age does not beget wisdom so does it matter? And who said anything about permission.

      • http://www.sk1wbw.wordpress.com/ Wayne Williams

        And yes, I’ll take 3 other people and a deck of cards and a cribbage board over any computer game in the world.

    • Shields

      No Wayne, the world doesn’t, but you sure seem like you do.

  • AAPL_@_$101_Is_A_Done_Deal_:)

    It would appear Apple tends to stick with devices it can easily monetize into profits. Does any of this VR stuff actually pay any bills? I can’t even imagine why a company like Facebook needs Oculus. Does Facebook intend to sell Oculus hardware to its consumer base? Facebook is putting out $2 billion in order to buy Oculus, but how is Facebook going to manage to get that money back? The two companies appear to be unrelated to me. Just having fancy gizmos to show off doesn’t sound like a good, financially successful business model.

    If any company can afford to tinker around with 3D tech, it would be Apple because the company is flush with cash. Facebook doesn’t seem to have any funds to simply waste on iffy hardware that won’t give anything back. Even from my point of view Apple seems to be overlooking future exciting tech, but then again I’m not privy to Apple’s internal plans. Maybe Apple already has this tech in their labs but trying to find out how to use it to make money. Apple has more reserve cash than Facebook’s entire market cap. I honestly don’t think Apple is in any danger of being upstaged or being left behind by Facebook.

    • Greg Lanciotti

      because VR is going to be the next “Windows”.. How else did Bill Gates make his money? Herp Derp!!

      • http://www.ahles.nl/ Patrick Ahles

        This is an Apple centric site (although more and more articles have absolutely nothing to do with Apple…). If Apple is stepping into VR it will do it their way (the right way from an Apple perspective), not because it is going to be the next “Windows”.

      • Greg Lanciotti

        oh oops. I didn’t realize this was an apple-centric site. My apologies. Yes, I agree. Apple will do it their own way. Same with a lot of other companies. I obviously didn’t read his whole comment.

      • Greg Lanciotti

        the only thing I’m trying to stress, is how big VR will become.

  • Greg Lanciotti

    Virtual Reality is going to be huge. I really don’t think other types of HMD’s will catch on. But I know true VR will. And the first consumer VR headset will be available within a year. If you can’t see how VR will be big, then I feel bad for ya…. because I can.

    • BenBernankeBoughtMeAYacht

      Greg, how can a Jew like myself profit from this new “VR” development? :D

      I’m only half joking, seriously, how can we make money off this please do share if anyone knows!

      • Greg Lanciotti

        haha i don’t know. I’m not a developer. But it’s times like these that I wish I was.

  • lowtolerance

    Lol are you seriously threatening violence toward someone OVER THE INTERNET? What a fucking genius you must be.

    Need my address, pussy? I will gladly stomp your geriatric ass into the ground.

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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