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? Or is the company focusing on augmented reality?

With Google, Microsoft and even Facebook also making VR and AR devices, it seems like it's a party Apple can't afford to miss. In this feature, we are going to look at all the latest Apple VR rumours, patents and leaked images.

What's the difference between virtual and augmented reality?

Virtual Reality headset

First, a quick refresher on terms. virtual reality headsets are mounted on the head in a similar way to Ski goggles, and completely blocks the view of the outside world. The VR headset tracks your head movement, and the 3D image displayed inside the headset moves accordingly. 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 Oculus Rift created 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 buy in the UK.

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 called Hololens that embeds 3D images in the world around you.

Microsoft Hololens Augmented Reality

Meanwhile, a rather mysterious company called Magic Leap is also working on a headset utilising Mixed Reality Digital Lightfields, allowing the headset to generate contextual digital lightfield content that can interact with the world around you.

Not much is known about the company, and it's said that only a handful of people have actually seen the headset - but judging by demo showcased by the company (which can be seen below), it's looks impressive to say the least. 

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.

Is Apple working on augmented reality glasses?

According to a rumour first picked up by Bloomberg, Apple's next project will be a Google Glass-style pair of augmented reality glasses and not a VR headset as originally believed. According to the news outlet, Apple has even gone as far as to discuss the project with its hardware suppliers, and even order a small number of "near-eye displays" for internal testing displays. 

If Apple's internal testing goes well and it moves on from the early stages of development, Bloomberg's sources claim that the glasses will wirelessly connect to an iPhone and will display not only information but images and other data directly in front of the wearer's field of view.

It's said that the glasses won't be made available until at least 2018, if ever, as Apple is notoriously secretive about its product development and the project could be canned at any moment.

More evidence of some sort of AR project comes from leaked Apple employee injury reports obtained by Gizmodo. While they're mostly about mundane workplace injuries like cafeteria burns, there are two that stand out.

One involved someone testing an unknown prototype device who "experienced discomfort in her eye and said she was able to see the laser flash at several points during the study." She was later referred to an optometrist.

Another involved an employee who "reported eye pain after working with new prototype, thought it may be associated with use."

While these could reflect either an AR or VR device, an internal source told Gizmodo that the injuries were likely linked to an AR prototype Apple is working on, speculating that it could be "something like glasses with an overhead display."

This suggests that Apple is gearing up for its next big product in the AR/VR industry: Apple Glasses. There are other rumours supporting the theory too and for those more interested in the idea of a VR headset, there are plenty of rumours supporting that theory too.

AR will come to iPhone first, AR glasses will come later

While Apple's interest in augmented reality seems obvious at this point, what is still unclear is the form in which it'll be presented: via our iPhones, or via a standalone wearable. While AR glasses patents have surfaced in the past, a new Bloomberg report claims that it'll actually be introduced on the iPhone first, with glasses coming later down the line. 

The report claims that there are now "hundreds of engineers devoted to the cause" including a number of people from Apple's iPhone camera team working on AR-related features for the iPhone. But what can we expect from AR on an iPhone? Bloomberg's source seems to have some information on that too. 

"One of the features Apple is exploring is the ability to take a picture and then change the depth of the photograph or the depth of specific objects in the picture later; another would isolate an object in the image, such as a person’s head, and allow it to be tilted 180 degrees. A different feature in development would use augmented reality to place virtual effects and objects on a person, much the way Snapchat works."

But while it'll be iPhone-only initially, Apple does apparently have plans to bring a pair of AR glasses to the market. "The AR-enhanced glasses are further down the road", but there's no rush to bring them to market because "the current crop of AR glasses are either under-powered and flimsy or powerful and overwhelmingly large. Apple, the king of thin and light, will have to leapfrog current products by launching something small and powerful."

The Bloomberg report is supported by a claim from a Business Insider source that Apple has teams from several acquired startups working on iPhone AR, and this reflects Apple's short-term desire to put AR into the hands of consumers. Sure, the AR glasses are coming, but integrating it into a smartphone that millions of people already have will introduce them to the concept of AR, and may make them more likely to buy the glasses once they go on sale.

The source also claims that Apple has hired an expert in head-mounted displays (HMDs), and that this showcases Apple's long-term AR/glasses initiative. Apple adding AR capabilities to the iPhone should allow consumers to point the phone at a real-world object, like a statue or a car, and be offered contextual information based on it overlaid onto the real world.  

Tim Cook says AR is 'a big idea like the smartphone'

Apple CEO Tim Cook is a fan of AR. He said in an August 2016 interview with The Washington Post that Apple is "doing a lot of things" in the augmented reality space, contrary to the popular belief that Apple was working on a virtual reality headset. He didn't stop there though, as the Apple boss went on to claim that he thinks of it as a "core technology" for the fruit company. 

"I think AR is extremely interesting and sort of a core technology" Cook stated during the interview. "So yes, it's something we're doing a lot of things on behind that curtain we talked about."

Following on from these comments, Cook took part in a rare interview session at Sen. Orrin Hatch's Utah Tech Tour in Salt Lake City in October 2016 where he again discussed augmented reality, although this time he gave us a better idea on what Apple may be working on.

"AR I think is going to become really big," said Cook. "VR, I think, is not gonna be that big, compared to AR … How long will it take? AR gonna take a little while, because there’s some really hard technology challenges there. But it will happen. It will happen in a big way. And we will wonder, when it does [happen], how we lived without it. Kind of how we wonder how we lived without our [smartphones] today."

It's interesting that Apple is focusing more on augmented reality than virtual reality, although it does make sense - especially with the booming popularity of apps that feature the technology like Pokemon Go, and of course the fact that its rival Microsoft is working on its own AR headset, the Microsoft HoloLens.

Cook sees it as becoming something that a huge part of the population will use on a daily basis, going on to state that he thinks "that a significant part of the population, of developed companies, and eventually all countries, will have AR experiences every day".

Speaking to The Independent during a trip to the UK, Cook said that he prefers AR over VR because it "allows individuals to be present in the world but hopefully allows an improvement on what's happening presently."

Considering that VR seems to provide the more immersive and enjoyable experience of the two platforms at the moment, why does Cook believe that AR is the future? People don't want to be cut off from the world, apparently.

"Most people don't want to lock themselves out from the world for a long period of time and today you can't do that because you get sick from it," he said, discussing virtual reality. "With AR you can, not be engrossed in something, but have it be a part of your world, of your conversation. That has resonance."

Cook even went as far as to liken it to the smartphone, and how that has changed the world. "I regard it as a big idea like the smartphone" he claimed. "The smartphone is for everyone, we don't have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: it's for everyone. I think AR is that big, it's huge."

iOS code hints at AR integration

It seems that Apple might've been working on VR/AR integration for quite some time, as iOS developer Steve Troughton-Smith uncovered some "interesting" features that he stumbled across in the iOS code. He revealed his findings via a tweet, which can be found below:

As you can see from the tweet and attached media, the code hints at a head-mounted display - and this is nothing new. According to Troughton-Smith, the code has been in place since iOS 9 and has been temporarily abandoned by Apple.

"I think the kind of VR you build for something dumb and simplistic like Google Cardboard is very different from what real VR needs. I imagine they got to the point where they realized they were going down the wrong path if they want to do this seriously," he said, speaking to Business Insider.

Carry on reading to find out if Apple is developing a VR headset, along with patents and release date rumours.