Add another piece to the growing list of evidence that Apple is starting to explore virtual and augmented reality.
This week, The Financial Times reported that Apple hired Doug Bowman, a researcher and professor at Virginia Tech who specialises in virtual reality. No one knows exactly what Bowman will be doing at Apple, but it’s not difficult to figure out what kinds of projects he’ll be focusing on based on his resume.
Many see virtual reality (VR) and its close relative augmented reality (AR) as the next major computing platforms. VR means completely immersing the subject in a virtual environment, like we’ve seen with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Gear VR, PlayStation VR, and Google Cardboard. AR means placing digital images on top of real-world objects. Google Glass (dead, but possibly making a comeback) and Microsoft’s HoloLens (cool!) are the best examples of this.
Ultimately, AR and VR have the potential to replace most of the screens in your life with just one gadget. It could be the platform that replaces the smartphone, computer, TV, and just about everything else one day. It’s even been called “the last medium“, meaning once the technology is perfected, VR/AR can be used as a blank canvas for anything we want to do.
Magic Leap, a secretive AR startup based in Florida, showed that possibility in one of its patent filings. If Magic Leap lives up to its promise, that could be a big problem for Apple and other major tech companies. You can doubt it all you want, but Apple has to be exploring the space.
Now back to Bowman.
One thing really stood out to me after digging through Bowman’s resume. He’s not just an expert in VR. He’s also an expert in 3D user interfaces, meaning he’s coming up with new ways to control what you see in VR when you don’t have something physical in your hands to work with.
Today’s VR headsets rely on physical controllers to work with what you see. The Oculus Rift will work with a standard Xbox controller and a pair of fancy motion controllers. Microsoft’s HoloLens has a different approach. You control it using “air click”, or pressing your index finger and thumb together while holding your hand in the air. It’s an awkward, inelegant solution.
It’s one of the biggest hurdles with the platform. If you’ve ever tried a VR headset, you’ve experienced that awkward feeling of wanting to look down and see your hands. But there’s nothing there. You still have to control everything with accessories designed for devices from a generation ago, and no one has really cracked a natural solution for navigating through the new medium. (Oculus’ motion controllers come close, but they’re not perfect.)
I’ve heard that’s been a big issue at companies like Magic Leap. They can create the headset relatively easily, but coming up with new ways to control everything with gestures and voice is a difficult problem to solve.
If Apple is going to take a crack at VR or AR, the user interface and navigation will be its biggest hurdles. That could be where someone like Bowman comes in.
And now for the caveat. As the Financial Times hinted, it’s possible Bowman won’t be working on VR at all for Apple. Instead, he could be working on Apple’s secret car project. As we’ve seen with several recent high-end vehicles like BMW’s 740i, a lot of infotainment systems are getting gesture controls so you can make adjustments without taking your eyes off the road. It’s possible Apple could be tapping Bowman’s expertise in such gestures for the Apple Car’s infotainment system.
But that seems like a waste of talent for someone with Bowman’s pedigree. All of Apple’s competitors are openly exploring VR. Google just dedicated an entire division to the platform. It’d be bonkers for Apple to not at least start heavily researching the space just in case it truly takes off. And so far, there’s a lot of evidence showing that’s exactly what Apple is doing.