Apple has assembled a large team of experts in virtual and augmented reality and built prototypes of headsets that could one day rival Facebook’s Oculus Rift or Microsoft’s Hololens, as it seeks new sources of growth beyond the iPhone.
The secret research unit includes hundreds of staff from a series of carefully targeted acquisitions, as well as employees poached from companies that are working on next-generation headset technologies including Microsoft and camera start-up Lytro, according to people familiar with the initiative.
The company’s latest acquisition in the area is Flyby Media, an augmented reality start-up that lets mobile devices “see” the world around them. Flyby’s team worked closely with Google in developing software for its 3D positioning technology Project Tango.
Apple has been building prototypes of possible headset configurations for several months.
Apple joins a growing focus in Silicon Valley on VR and AR as companies from Facebook and Google to Microsoft and Samsung eye the next big technology platform.
The news comes after the Financial Times reported that Apple had hired Doug Bowman, a leading VR researcher.
Tim Cook, chief executive, declared earlier this week that the technology had broad appeal. “It is really cool and has some interesting applications,” Mr Cook said on Tuesday, as Apple reported iPhone sales growth had slowed to a halt.
Apple has experimented with virtual-reality headsets in the past. Under co-founder Steve Jobs in the mid-2000s, a small team created prototypes and filed patents on putative devices, before abandoning the idea as the technology was deemed immature.
Some VR patents were revealed early last year, after a series of Apple job advertisements appeared seeking software engineers to “create high performance apps that integrate with virtual reality systems for prototyping and user testing”.
Apple’s interest in the sector has been rekindled after the emergence of Oculus, which was acquired by Facebook for $2bn in 2014. Oculus’ first headset prototype used smartphone panels for its display and its founder Palmer Luckey partially financed his research into VR by repairing broken iPhones.
After buying Israeli motion-sensing company PrimeSense in 2013, Apple stepped up its recruiting and dealmaking in VR and AR with the purchases of Metaio and Faceshift.
Apple is still seeking further acquisitions in optical technologies to enable it to complete its project, said people familiar with its plans.
The company’s hiring spree has accelerated over the past year, particularly after the Metaio deal. In addition to Mr Bowman, a computer science professor from Virginia Tech, Apple has recruited several former employees from Lytro, a Silicon Valley start-up that launched the first consumer camera to use “light field” optics to capture a scene, as well as Microsoft’s Hololens team.
It is unclear when Apple plans to release a headset, or whether its device will compete with the likes of Google’s Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR in mobile virtual reality, or push for a more ambitious augmented-reality device akin to Microsoft’s forthcoming Hololens and Magic Leap.
The skills and technologies it has assembled in imaging and positioning might also be useful for its secret car project. People familiar with the company’s plans say that the VR/AR project is a separate unit.
Although its latest VR efforts are said to be much more advanced than those of 10 years ago, Apple might again decide not to release a headset.
Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, told the New Yorker magazine last year that the face was the “wrong place” to put technology, after Google struggled to win over consumers with its Glass headset.
Apple confirmed its acquisition of Flyby Media saying: “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.”
But the company declined to comment on any VR initiative.