The company recently confirmed a Financial Times report that it hired VR expert and Virginia Tech computer-science professor Doug Bowman, also the head of the university's Center for Human-Computer Interaction. Apple has also acquired three companies working in either VR or AR (augmented reality) during the past year: AR company Metaio, motion capture startup Faceshift, and expression analysis company Emotient.
So what does Bowman's hire suggest Apple has planned for VR and AR? It's impossible to know for sure, but here are three possible scenarios.
1. A headset to replace the iPhone.
Piper Jaffray senior analyst Gene Munster recently told the Wall Street Journal he thinks Apple is pursuing an AR product, like electronic glasses or an Apple version of Google Glass, that could potentially replace the iPhone one day. This type of device could allow consumers to scroll through applications without obscuring visibility of the real world. Even if Apple has no official plans to produce such a product, Munster told the WSJ that Apple will still allocate resources to the technology "just to hedge their bets," and that he thinks Apple has a small team of people working on AR.
2. A gadget to make all screens a thing of the past.
Dreaming even bigger, Apple could be envisioning a headset that would make all other products with a screen--tablets, computers, TVs--obsolete, as suggested by Tech Insider. VR has been referred to as "the last medium," suggesting that as soon as VR and AR technology reach a tipping point of consumer adoption, there will be no need for any other device with a screen. Everything from computing to entertainment to apps will be achievable through one singular device.
3. Apple's electric car.
Despite Bowman's extensive experience in VR and AR, there is also a chance that his hiring is actually related to Apple's secretive car project. Why? As the FT reported, car companies including BMW have been experimenting with "gesture control," where drivers can use physical gestures to control infotainment systems. The benefit of the technology is the ability to operate electronic features while continuing to look at the road ahead, rather than look down at a screen and risk distracted driving. While it seems unlikely that Apple would hire a VR expert for something other than VR, Bowman's expertise in "human-computer interaction" does lend itself to this type of technology.
Regardless of Apple's specific plans, it's hard to imagine the company not offering some sort of product or service related to VR and AR technology in the next few years. Investment in the sector has grown for the past six consecutive quarters, helping the industry claim a spot on Inc.'s most recent list of the Best Industries for Starting a Business.