The patent for a wireless “head-mounted display” which could be used to “view media” follows a string of job advertisements on Apple’s website seeking engineers with experience in developing virtual reality apps.
In two job postings in November and again last week, Apple said it was seeking software engineers to “create high performance apps that integrate with virtual reality systems for prototyping and user testing”.
Another recent pair of ads for “VR/AR programmers” sought candidates with “a proven track record in virtual and augmented reality” to “enable development of Apple’s next generation of products”.
Further job postings invited applications from developers for “state of the art physics-based world simulation, visuals and virtual reality” with experience in developing for the Oculus Rift VR headset.
Apple did not comment on the VR patent application or job ads.
The patent award is the latest Apple development project to come to light after the Financial Times and others reported last week on the iPhone maker’s secret R&D lab devoted to automotive products that could lead to the eventual release of an electric car.
However, Apple regularly researches new technologies which do not always result in a new product being launched.
Apple is one of the few leading smartphone players that has not yet launched a product in the VR market, which has gained increased industry attention since Facebook’s $2bn acquisition of Oculus VR last year but has not yet seen mainstream consumer uptake.
Google released its Cardboard headset, for use with Android-based smartphones, at its developer conference last year and plans to release a version based on Mattel’s View-Master toy later this year. Samsung’s Gear VR, which uses its Galaxy Note 4 smartphone as a screen and was developed in partnership with Oculus, went on sale in US electronics retailer Best Buy last month.
LG last week announced that it would give away a plastic VR viewer with purchases of its latest G3 phone, while Sony is exploring the technology in gaming with Project Morpheus, a planned PlayStation 4 peripheral.
Images accompanying Apple’s patents show an iPhone slotting into a headset that rests on the nose and ears and can be worn like a pair of glasses.
A headset connected by wires to a PC “may be inconvenient and cumbersome”, the patent explains. Using an iPhone or iPod as a screen reduces cost, size, weight and complexity of such a device, it adds.
A very similar smartphone-based system is used by Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Cardboard but the patent was originally filed in 2008, long before Oculus revived interest in VR when it raised $2.4m on Kickstarter in 2012.
In 2013, Apple acquired PrimeSense, an Israeli start-up best known for creating Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect motion gaming device but which had also created a new 3D depth-sensing component that was small enough to fit into a smartphone or tablet. Some in the VR industry have speculated that PrimeSense’s technology could allow an Apple VR headset to detect hand gestures to navigate a virtual world.
However, in a recent profile in the New Yorker magazine, Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s top designer, dismissed the idea of headsets such as Google Glass, saying the face was the “wrong place” to put everyday technology.
Ben Bajarin, technology analyst at Creative Strategies, said that Apple files lots of patents, which could be used to improve an existing product rather than create something new.
Alongside the secret electric car project, Apple’s experimentation in VR “reaffirms this idea that they are thinking 20 to 30 years from now out, not two”, Mr Bajarin said. “I’m sure they’ve worked on pretty much everything we could imagine . . . The world’s their oyster.”