Facebook, Google and Microsoft have all delved into virtual and augmented reality technology. Now Apple is dipping a toe into the space too.
Apple recently acquired an augmented reality start-up called Flyby Media and hired Doug Bowman, who ran the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech and who has researched topics such as immersion in virtual environments. An Apple spokesman confirmed the Flyby deal and said, “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.” The acquisition and the hire were earlier reported by The Financial Times.
Virtual and augmented reality are growing fields in the technology industry. Supporters like Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, have said virtual reality is the next big platform after mobile. The technology, which can make users feel transported by immersing them in different environments, has the potential to transform games, movies, social networks and work. Almost $4 billion has been invested in virtual reality start-ups since 2010, according to PitchBook, a research firm.
Developing virtual and augmented reality technology is about creating “the next operating system,” said Linc Gasking, co-founder and chief executive of 8i, a company that creates virtual reality software. “Apple currently owns the computer in your pocket, and it needs to be part of the next big user interface if it wants to retain that ownership.”
Facebook bought the virtual reality headset maker Oculus for $2 billion in 2014. Microsoft has demonstrated its HoloLens device, which is focused on augmented reality, a related technology that lets people wearing smart glasses or headsets see and manipulate digital objects in the real world. And Google is the biggest outside investor in Magic Leap, a secretive start-up that is developing a wearable device for mixing real and digital images. Google’s Cardboard glasses also let people watch virtual reality video on their smartphones.
Apple has not, until recently, been publicly enthusiastic about virtual reality. While it has made tiny acquisitions in the field, it has not made a deal as large as Facebook’s Oculus purchase and has not brought any hardware to market.
Now rivals are delivering products to consumers. In addition to Google’s Cardboard, an inexpensive product that has been on the market for months, Facebook plans to ship its $599 Rift headset in March. Facebook’s partner Samsung is already selling a more rudimentary $99 headset, theGear VR.
Apple has filed dozens of virtual reality-related patents in the past, including one in 2008 for a head-mounted display apparatus. The patent illustration shows a large pair of glasses that can hold an iPhone, and it looks much like Google’s Cardboard.
Matt Miesnieks, who is setting up an augmented reality-focused venture capital fund, said Apple had also been meeting with “advanced optics” start-ups, referring to the lens that a viewer looks through. Apple currently lacks such technology, he said.
In a phone call with analysts to discuss Apple’s most recent quarterly results, the company’s chief executive, Timothy D Cook, was asked about virtual reality. He said he thought the technology was more than a niche. “It’s really cool,” Cook said. “It has some interesting applications.”

©2016 The New York Times News Service