There are multiple rumours that Apple is developing a virtual reality (VR), or augmented reality (AR) device, going back well over a year. Is Apple making a VR headset, and what would an Apple VR headset look like? If the Apple VR device is real, when can we expect an Apple virtual reality device to be announced? In this feature, we are going to look at all the latest Apple VR rumours, patents and leaked images - including the remarks that Tim Cook made at Apple's quarterly earnings conference call in early 2016. 

There's no smoke without fire, and Apple has filed patents and hired VR experts. So Apple is clearly investigating, and building prototype VR devices. And with Google, Microsoft and even Facebook also making VR and AR devices, it seems like VR is a party Apple can't afford to miss.

Update 17/02/2016: Updated to include comments made by Director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab Jeremy Bailenson regarding Apple visiting his VR lab. 

Apple VR: What is virtual and augmented reality?

Virtual Reality headset

First, a quick refresher on terms. Virtual reality devices are headsets worn like glasses, but inside a VR headset are screens that display a 3D image. The VR headset tracks your head movement, and the 3D image moves according. This makes it appear as if you are wholly inside a 3D 'virtual' world.

Virtual reality hit the headlines in the 1990s when video games companies like Sega and Nintendo attempted to create and sell VR products to the public. The technology wasn't ready then, but a more recent attempt called The Rift developed by Oculus VR in 2012 was developed with modern 3D technology and development has been wowing people ever since. Eventually, FaceBook bought Oculus VR in 2014 for over $2b, and the VR headset is now available to pre-order with shipping commencing in March.

Augmented reality, on the other hand, is where the glasses are see-through and you can still see the world around you, but an image is displayed in front of your eyes. Augmented reality also hit the headlines in recent years, first thanks to Google Glass (which displays 2D images) and more recently with an impressive demonstration by Microsoft for an upcoming product it is calling Hololens that embeds 3D images in the world around you.

Microsoft Hololens Augmented Reality

Meanwhile, Google has invested $500m in a company called Magic Leap, who is also working on a Hololens-style device that superimposes 3D computer-generated imagery into the real world.

Apple is known to be a trailblazer, but it's still part of the Silicon Valley tech industry (albeit a more secretive one). If Google, FaceBook and Microsoft are all working on VR and AR solutions, you can be your bottom dollar that Apple also has a prototype in its labs.

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Apple VR rumours: Apple sends employees to specialist VR lab

If Apple isn't developing a virtual reality headset, then why has it sent employees to Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab several times over the course of three months? As first reported by the Wall Street Journal, Director Jeremy Bailenson made the remark regarding Apple visiting the centre during a Wall Street Journal conference in California. The Virtual Human Interaction Lab based at Stanford University is the first place that businesses will go before developing a virtual reality headset - Mark Zuckerburg, CEO of Facebook even went along shortly before it acquired Oculus. 

Speaking at the event, Bailenson remarked: "Apple hasn't come to my lab in 13 years - except they've come three times in the last three months. They come and they don't say a word, but there's a data point for you." As ever, Apple is keeping tight-lipped on the subject but this, along with recent comments made by Tim Cook claiming that VR isn't a niche and that it has interesting applications suggests that an Apple-branded VR headset is in the works, although it could still be a way away. 

Apple VR rumours: Tim Cook discusses VR at Apple quarterly earnings call

While people have been speculating that Apple will be making a virtual reality headset for well over a year now, the company hasn’t officially acknowledged its interest in the VR market – until now. During Apple’s quarterly earnings conference call in January 2016 (where Apple announced its biggest quarterly profit ever, $18.4 billion) Apple CEO Tim Cook fielded a question regarding virtual reality. His response? “In terms of VR, I don't think it's a niche. It's really cool and has some interesting applications.

Okay, so it’s not quite confirmation that the company is actively developing a virtual reality headset, but let’s look at the past. Back in 2014, before the announcement of the new Apple TV, Tim Cook was quoted saying that TV was an area that Apple had a “great interest in” – a year later, we had a completely new Apple TV boasting its own App Store and gaming capabilities. Cook also called the idea of smartwatches “interesting” back in 2013, way before the launch of the Apple Watch. So as we said, it’s not confirmation, but it gives us a good idea at what to expect in the (possibly near) future.

Apple VR Rumours: Apple hires virtual reality developers

If we cast our minds back to November 2014, some may remember that Apple posted a job listing for app engineers experienced with 3D graphics, virtual reality and augmented reality. The job posting was quickly removed, but it specifically asked for developers to build “high-performance apps that integrate with Virtual Reality systems for prototyping and user testing.”

Since then, Apple has made a number of relatively high-profile hires for its virtual reality project, including Microsoft’s Nick Thompson, an engineer that worked on the HoloLens audio hardware for three years. Apple also hired Bennett Wilburn, another Microsoft employee, who focused on “machine learning technology for human activity recognition” with his previous experience including the likes of Lytro and Huawei.

Along with ex-Microsoft employees, Apple has also hired Doug Bowman, a man considered to be a leader in the field of 3D user interfaces. His previous experience includes working as a computer science professor at Virginia Tech, as well as being the head of the school’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction. Lastly, we have Graham Myhre, a man that previously worked at Lytro developing specialised lenses and sensors, but is now “investigating new display and optical technologies for future generations of Apple products” – at least that’s what his LinkedIn says anyway.

As well as this, a recent report from the Financial Times claims that Apple has actually successfully developed a virtual reality prototype, and is actively testing it behind closed doors - no doubt by the spree of VR-related hires at Apple over the past few months. Though a prototype is floating around, the FT source doesn't go into detail about what we can expect from Apple's seemingly upcoming headset. 

Apple VR acquisitions: Apple buys a number of VR-related companies

One of Apple’s biggest and most popular acquisitions was back in 2013 when the company bought PrimeSense, the company that developed the original Xbox Kinect, for a whopping $345 million. That’s a huge amount of money to buy a company for technology that might not be used, in our opinion anyway. While many first assumed that it’d tie in with Apple’s rumoured TV set (or the Apple TV itself), it seems more suited to a possible VR/AR headset.  

It didn’t stop there either, as 2015 was a busy year for Apple – and we’re not talking about the number of new products. The first acquisition of the year was Metaio, a German company that Apple acquired back in May 2015. Metaio was a relatively well-known company with regards to augmented reality, powering many of the popular AR applications being used today – including Ikea’s virtual catalog, and Ferarri’s AR showroom app. Since being bought out by Apple, Metaio has gone quiet – heading to its website will offer you a brief overview of the company, a contact email address and not much else. Mysterious.

Along with acquiring Metaio, Apple also acquired Faceshift in November 2015. While it isn’t an AR-specific company like Metaio, Faceshift created the motion-capture technology that was used in the recent Star Wars film. The firm is known for developing software that allows CGI-animated 3D characters to ‘copy’ the facial expressions of the actor. While this could be linked to a virtual/augmented reality headset, it could also be used on FaceTime – think Snapchat-esque lenses.

Most recently, Apple has confirmed the acquisition of Flyby Media, a company well-known for developing technology that allows smartphones to 'see' the world around them. Notably, the company has worked with Google in the past to develop the image-recognition abilities found in Google's Project Tango. Though the website is now down (typical of an Apple acquisition), Flyby Media described itself as "dedicated to building new technology that can elevate, rather than replace, our real-world experiences." and boasted a team with knowledge in the areas of large-scale SLAM, indoor navigation, sensor fusion, image recognition as well as 3D tracking. 

Macworld UK poll: Is Apple developing a virtual reality headset?

Apple VR headset patents: Apple patents head-mounted display

Apple patents VR display

Way back in December 2013 an Apple Patent (USPTO 8,605,008) surfaced. This patent described a head-mounted display. The abstract talks about "A goggle system for providing a personal media viewing experience to a user is provided. The goggle system may include an outer cover, a mid-frame, optical components for generating the media display, and a lens on which the generated media displayed is provided to the user."

Apple VR design rumours: what will Apple VR look like?

Apple VR Headset design

According to Apple's patent, "the goggle system may resemble ski or motorcycle goggles. To enhance the user's comfort, the goggle system may include breathable components, including for example breathable foam that rests against the user's face, and may allow the user to move the display generation components for alignment with the user's eyes. In some embodiments, the goggle system may include data processing circuitry operative to adjust left and right images generated by the optical components to display 3-D media or account for a user's eyesight limitations"

The patent was filed in May 2007 before the iPhone was even released.

Apple VR UK release date rumours: When will Apple release its VR headset?

Assuming that Apple is working on a VR headset, and is going to announce one at some point, when would be a likely time?

While other companies seem to be making public headway with their VR offerings, nothing is truly available to the public yet. Oculus Rift will come first, with pre-orders shipping in March, with the HTC Vive Pre to follow suit soon after. Hololens is being given to developers for testing and probably won't get a public release until at least later in 2016, and development on Google Glass has been halted.

Apple traditionally announces devices it can sell in the same year. If there is to be an Apple VR announcement from Apple, we'll hear more rumours as time progresses. We're hoping to hear more information about the headset this year, but there is no word yet on a possible release date.