Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster believes Apple plans to put iOS at the center of several forthcoming augmented reality and VR innovations set to launch within the next two years.
In a research note obtained by AppleInsider, Munster claims a timeline of recent purchases and hires by the company suggests that iOS support for "mixed reality" applications could be set for launch as soon as 2018.
The analyst points to a LinkedIn search which reveals at least 141 Apple employees with a background in AR, although it should be noted that the same search returns 425 and 267 people with similar experience working at Microsoft and Google, respectively.
Of particular interest to Apple is the concept of "mixed reality" wearables, or advanced optics that use embedded cameras and sensors to blend holographic imagery with real-life objects, claims Munster.
Intellectual property gained via research and development projects as well as strategic acquisitions, such as Apple's purchase of 3D body sensing firm PrimeSense, are said to be behind the recent drive.
We believe 10 years from now Generation Z will find reality inefficient. We believe the concept of an 'inefficient reality' is evident through smartphone use today — the precursor to mixed reality — offering users the ability to find more information as needed.
The analyst goes on to suggest a natural progression in the personal technology market from smartphones to AR/VR and believes Apple is looking at VR as an iPhone peripheral, much like the Apple Watch. The prospect of Apple releasing hardware on this front in the near term is seen by Munster as unlikely, although by 2018 Apple may be ready to offer developers an official software framework for licensed third-party hardware solutions, similar to the company's MFi Program for iOS devices.
Munster has made questionable assertions in recent years, with predictions such as Apple's rumored television set having failed to materialize. Still, the note does follow a recent report by Financial Times claiming that Apple has built a "secret research unit" in which hundreds of employees are experimenting with AR and VR technologies. The team is said to be made up of, among others, experts plucked from Microsoft and live-action VR company Lytro.
Apple's interest in virtual reality has gained pace over the last few years, with the filing of multiple patents for VR-related products, like video goggles, motion-sensing 3D virtual interfaces for iOS devices, and 3D "hyper reality" displays. More recently, Apple has made a spate of AR/VR-related acquisitions, including Metaio, Faceshift, Emotient, and image-recognition app creators Flyby Media. Last month, the company hired Doug Bowman, said to be one of the leading VR experts in the United States.