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Is Apple Getting Ready for Virtual Reality?

Compared to rival tech companies like Google and Facebook, Apple doesn’t say much publicly about its virtual-reality ambitions. Occasionally, though, the company’s aspirations are revealed through a business acquisition or a new hire. This time, speculation is being fueled by Apple’s recently revealed hiring of Doug A. Bowman, a leading VR researcher who has until now been director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Human Computer Interaction.

Bowman’s hiring, according to a report published Friday in the Financial Times, is “the strongest sign yet of the iPhone maker’s intent, which analysts speculate could range from building a headset of its own to new kinds of automotive controls and displays.”

Winner of the IEEE’s 2014 Virtual Reality Technical Achievement Award, Bowman has published research about many aspects of VR, with a strong focus on 3D user interfaces. Last fall, he and Virginia Tech colleage Joseph Gabbard were among five recipients of a $100,000 grant from Microsoft for research related to its HoloLens holographic computing device.

Potential Applications for iPhones, Apple TV

While Apple doesn’t tout its plans for virtual-, augmented- or mixed-reality technologies, its actions speak to interests in those areas.

Recent Apple acquisitions with VR potential include PrimeSense, a 3D sensor firm purchased in late 2013 for $345 million; Metaio, Perceptio and Faceshift, all acquired for undisclosed amounts in 2015; and facial-recognition tech company Emotient, purchased earlier this year for a reported $6 million.

There’s been some speculation that these acquisitions show Apple is interested in developing a VR headset that might be similar to Microsoft’s HoloLens, Facebook/Oculus Rift, or Google Cardboard.

In fact, the company last year was awarded a U.S. patent for a head-mounted wearable in which an iPhone would be used as a display screen.

Another area of interest is likely to be in virtual reality’s potential for creating new entertainment experiences. Apple, after all, has Apple Music and iTunes, as well as Apple TV.

How Immersive Does VR Need To Be?

Bowman, who was the lead author of the book, “3D User Interfaces: Theory and Practice,” has contributed “significantly to the theory and practice of VR through his research on the effects of fidelity on the effectiveness of VR systems,” according to the IEEE announcement for his 2014 award.

Much of Bowman’s work, the IEEE said, has focused on how the levels of immersion contribute to the effectiveness of virtual-reality systems, and how such systems can help users learn new information or acquire new skills.

Bowman and Gabbard’s recently announced HoloLens research grant will look at “multi-user visualization of, and interaction with, big datasets in collaborative mixed reality environments,” according to a news release from Virginia Tech.

That research has potential applications in spaces such as museums, where many individuals at a time can share the same experience of displays and demonstrations using VR technology.

So, what’s next for Apple in the world of virtual reality, with Bowman at the helm? We’ll be following the action and all new developments. Stay tuned for more.

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