Apple VR
Apple's latest hires and acquisitions may help it jump-start its development of virtual reality technology. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Apple Inc. has assembled a secret research group focused on developing virtual and augmented reality technology, the Financial Times reports. The team consists of hundreds of employees — some coming from acquired companies and some that Apple poached from its competition, such as Microsoft and Lytro, a camera start-up.

Apple’s work with virtual reality dates back to at least 2006, according to a patent titled “Peripheral Treatment for Head-Mounted Displays,” published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark office. Virtual and augmented reality are two related but somewhat different takes on head-mounted display technology. With virtual reality, a head-mounted device is worn to fully immerse its user in a computer-generated environment. With augmented reality, computer generated images are overlaid real-world objects, much like a fighter jet's heads-up display.

Apple VR
A patent illustration detailing the placement of a user's eyes in relation to a head-mounted display unit. USPTO/Apple Inc.

But in more recent years, Apple has made a number of acquisitions related to the technology. In 2013, it spent $345 million for PrimeSense, an Israel-basel 3D sensor company that was behind the technology in the original Kinect motion-sensor for the Xbox 360, according to Calcalist. On Friday, it acquired Flyby Media, an augmented reality company that specializes in real-time indoor mapping.

The acquisition comes just one week after Apple hired Doug Bowman, a virtual reality researcher and computer science professor at Virginia Tech. Signs of Apple ramping up its VR development go back to August, when the company hired Nick Thompson, former audio hardware engineer lead for Microsoft’s HoloLens. “Based on recent acquisitions of augmented reality companies, hiring of a key Microsoft Hololens employee, and conversations with industry contacts within the virtual and augmented reality spaces, we believe Apple has a team exploring" augmented reality, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster wrote in an August research note.

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While Apple hasn’t explicitly said it’s working on a VR product, CEO Tim Cook has hardly dismissed the prospect for virtual reality becoming a mainstream technology. “In terms of virtual reality, no, I don't think it's a niche,” Cook said in response to a question during Apple’s January earnings call. “I think it can be — it's really cool and has some interesting applications.”

Virtual reality tech isn’t the only trick up Apple's sleeve. It's also rumored to be working on an electric car, codenamed Titan. But that’s not expected to ship until 2019 at the earliest.

Apple is entering an increasingly crowded room of virtual reality companies. Facebook's Oculus is expected to begin shipping on March 28, preorders for the HTC Vive are expected to begin in late February and Sony's PlayStation VR is expected to debut later this year.