Apple has recruited popular science YouTuber Mark Rober to work as part of its top secret special projects group, developing a VR on-board entertainment system for self-driving cars.
Rober has been working with Apple for the past several years, although he has kept news of Apple’s identity secret. In a Reddit AmA, he described it as a “large tech company in the Bay Area.” His name was revealed as part of several patent applications Apple has recently filed.
These include an “immersive virtual display” and “augmented virtual display,” referring to VR systems which could potentially be used the drivers of self-driving cars, who no longer need to keep their eyes on the road.
One patent application on which he is named describes how virtual avatars could be incorporated into an in-vehicle experience. It notes that:
“For example, a virtual representation of an author or talk show host may appear to be sitting in the seat next to the passenger; the virtual author may be reading one of their books to the passenger, or the virtual talk show host may be hosting their show from the seat next to the passenger, with their voices provided through the audio system. As another example, the passenger may experience riding on a flatbed truck with a band playing a gig on the flatbed, with the band’s music provide (sic) through the audio system.”
Rober’s Apple career doesn’t appear to take up all his time, however. He has appeared on television shows such as The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and maintained a semi-regular upload schedule for his YouTube videos. His last video was uploaded just three days ago. In total, he has around 3.4 million subscribers.
Prior to becoming a popular YouTuber, Rober worked for NASA JPL for nine years, with seven of these years working on the the Curiosity Rover. “Recently, I was presented with an opportunity to return to my Engineering roots to come do some ideation type of work for a tech company near San Francisco,” his bio notes.
Apple’s AR and car plans
That Apple would be interested in implementing AR or VR in its self-driving car project isn’t too much of a surprise. Tim Cook has talked enthusiastically about ARKit and the possibilities of augmented reality, and suggested that it is likely to be a big part of Apple’s work going forwards.
Apple has yet to reveal exactly what its plans are when it comes to self-driving cars. However, I’d be very surprised if concepts like in-car virtual reality are something Apple would look to implement any time soon. So far, semi-self-driving car features like Tesla’s “Autopilot” mode require that users keep an eye on the road at all times.
Deaths involving semi-autonomous cars are few and far between, but have often been blamed on drivers (or, at least, the person in the driver’s seat) being distracted behind the wheel, and not paying full attention to their surroundings. While the need to do this will change as autonomous cars become smarter, we’re still likely a good few years before VR systems to entertain drivers become an actual thing.
And that’s almost certainly a good thing!