What would it mean if Apple joined the VR fray

Apple is making moves toward a play in virtual reality. If the tech giant strapped on a headset, here's what it would mean-especially for those who want to use VR for more than gaming.

Image: iStock/Sasha_Suzi

Samsung, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, HTC -- in the future, Apple might be the next big name to add to the list of companies that have leapt into the fray in augmented reality and virtual reality.

The Financial Times reported that Apple has hired a VR researcher. Prior to joining Apple, Doug Bowman was a computer science professor at Virginia Tech, and he was the director for the center for human-computer interface at the university.

This isn't the first time Apple and VR have popped up in the same sentence. Apple has patents from 2008 and 2013 pertaining to headmounted displays.

Image: Google Patents

There are a few reason why Apple would be interested in getting into VR. There's what Altimeter Group's managing editor Omar Akhtar described as the company's preference for keeping people within their hardware and software ecosystem.

"I can't imagine a world where Apple would allow Samsung's or Google's products to be compatible with its phone when really, it would love to own the entire experience," he said. The 2013 patent, in particular, leaves the door open for an integrated screen, or the use of an Apple device like an iPod (specifically mentioned in the patent), to power the display.

SEE: Photos: 10 cool virtual reality patents from the past 25 years

Another reason, is that immersive technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality require the combination of infrastructure, ecosystem, and advanced technology. Gartner analyst Brian Blau said Apple is one of the few companies with a strong record in all those areas.

What an Apple HMD could mean for the enterprise is hard to say. Only in 2015 did Apple release an iPad specifically for professionals, even though Apple products have been in use in the enterprise for decades.

In the VR and AR realm, there are use cases for marketing, training, travel, healthcare, education, and more. So far, devices from Google Cardboard on up are fairly agnostic to the genres of experiences they're used for, whether it's (varying levels of) gaming or offering an immersive product demo at a trade show.

SEE: Virtual reality in 2016: The 10 biggest trends to watch

Still, Akhtar thinks that in this point in time, use cases outside of gaming and entertainment are far less developed--though promising.

Naturally, Apple will be secretive and will take its time with the product. Blau said one of Apple's strong suits is taking complex technology, and making it usable for consumer or business use, and that he expects the same will be true in this case.

Forrester Research's J.P. Gownder said, "There were smartphones before the iPhone, there were tablets before the iPad, and there were smart watches before Apple Watch. Apple's approach is to build markets at the exact moment when the wave begins to build, not after it's crest."

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