Apple has yet to show its hand in the area of virtual reality but it has been quietly amassing technology through acquisitions of other companies in the field. And now, the company has hired Doug Bowman, one of the best-known researchers in the field, as it attempts to catch up with efforts from Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Samsung.
According to a report by the Financial Times, Apple has hired Doug Bowman, a computer science professor at Virginia Tech where he was director of the university’s human-computer interaction center for five years, before recently taking a sabbatical. During his time at the university, he focused on "topics of three-dimensional user interface design and the benefits of immersion in virtual environments," according to his academic profile.
Bowman was also, along with colleague Joseph Gabbard, among five recipients of a grant of $100,000 and two HoloLens Development Edition devices to carry out research into uses for Microsoft's augmented reality headset. Bowman's research was called a "Collaborative Analysis of Large-scale Mixed Reality Data."
The Financial Times reported that Bowman worked as a user experience consultant for Disney Imagineering, working on the company's theme park rides.
Virtual and augmented reality is one of the hot topics in the computer world at the moment, and the next few months will see the launch of consumer-focused devices like the Facebook's Oculus Rift, Sony's PlayStation VR and HTC's Vive. While Samsung already launched its Gear VR headset that works with smartphones, Google has its own cut-price VR viewer called Cardboard. Microsoft is developing its enterprise-focused HoloLens headset while secretive startup Magic Leap is making a lot of headlines for its augmented reality technology.
Apple has made no official announcements about what it is planning on doing in this area, but in early 2015 the company posted a number of job listings that indicated it was seeking to build a base of talent in this area. Those listings included one for a Senior Display Systems Engineer to design and test displays that could be used in a virtual environment.
In August, the company reportedly hired former HoloLens engineer Nick Thompson to bolster its augmented reality efforts and the hiring of Bowman is the latest sign that Apple is ramping up its efforts to become a significant player in a market said to be worth $80 billion by 2025, according to Goldman Sachs.
Going even further back, in 2013, Apple acquired Israel-based Primesense, the semiconductor company behind the first Kinect motion sensor for the Microsoft Xbox 360. Through the acquisition, Apple acquired several patents from the company, including one related to a video headset, according to Patently Apple.
In May 2015, Apple acquired Metaio, a German augmented reality startup that provided its services to companies such as Ikea and Ferrari while earlier this month Apple acquired Emotient, a San Diego-based startup using AI technology to read the emotions on the faces of people, which some analysts say could be used in virtual reality applications.
While Apple is almost certainly investigating virtual and augmented reality as a standalone project, its recent hiring and acquisitions in this area could be feeding into another area the company is said to be working on: “3D user interfaces are gaining momentum as a future interaction paradigm for carmakers as evidenced at CES,” Ben Wood from CCS Insight told the Financial Times. “A number of manufacturers such as Audi and BMW were showcasing gesture-based user interfaces which have the potential to evolve into this area. Given the persistent reports of Apple’s ambitions in the automotive sector, this could be another reason to secure talent in this domain.”