3dp_appletestlab_logoWhile Apple has always been notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to ongoing projects and technology development, it seemed a little off that we haven’t heard much from them concerning virtual reality. Many of Apple’s fellow global tech companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Samsung have been very openly developing virtual reality technology for years. But after so much silence it seems that the northern California tech giant is finally getting serious about VR by hiring one of the top researchers in the field for an unknown position within the company. The announcement of the new hire comes just a matter of weeks after Facebook’s Oculus Rift began taking preorders for the $599 VR device.

After recently taking a break from his five-year position as a computer science professor and as the director of the center for human-computer interaction at Virginia Tech, Doug Bowman has now officially joined Apple. Bowman is widely considered one of the top researches in the field of virtual reality, and his primary research seems to focus on 3D user interface design and applications for immersive virtual environments. In joining Apple he brings with him experience in virtually every aspect of VR tech, including immersive headset devices, not to mention the development of augmented reality devices that allows the wearer to see real world environments while still interacting with digital images.

Of course Apple has, as per usual, declined to make any sort of official comment on the issue, but some industry insiders believe that they have been showing a great deal of interest in the past six months. The hiring of Bowman is the clearest sign yet that virtual reality is an area that the company is actively pursuing. Speculation of potential products range from their own Apple branded VR headset to VR and AR controls and displays integrated into cars.

Apple's under construction Cupertino Campus.

Apple’s under construction Cupertino Campus.

Apple has been very low key when it comes to their plans for VR technology, but they have recently begun dropping a few hints that they have interest. Over the past few years they have filed a handful of patents for smartphone-based VR headsets and VR technology. They have also acquired several small startups, including augmented reality and computer vision company Metaio and the facial expression motion capture technology developed by Faceshift last year. Most recently they purchased Emotient, a startup that created software capable of recognizing and predicting emotions. While Apple regularly purchases companies and files patents that never see the light of day, their lack of comments aside, it simply isn’t possible that they are ignoring VR technology and not working on developing something of their own.

“I’d wager that there is a substantial team within Apple figuring out how the company will play a role in this technology. It certainly can’t let rivals such as Facebook, Google and Samsung run away with the market, particularly given the groundswell of momentum building around smartphone-based virtual reality. 3D user interfaces are gaining momentum as a future interaction paradigm for car makers as evidenced at CES. A number of manufacturers such as Audi and BMW were showcasing gesture-based user interfaces which have the potential to evolve into this area. Given the persistent reports of Apple’s ambitions in the automotive sector, this could be another reason to secure talent in this domain,” said CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood.

Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset.

Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset.

Regardless of Apple’s actual intent with VR tech, their hiring of Bowman is a huge get for the company. He carries with him unquestionable bonafides from within academia and has received numerous awards from the industry for his pioneering research with VR and 3D interfaces. He has been published in peer reviewed journals throughout the industry and remains one of the most-cited authors in the fields of VR and 3D UI.

Bowman was recently given the 2014 Virtual Reality Technical Achievement Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a National Science Foundation CAREER grant for his domain-specific 3D UI work and received research funding from NSF, the Office of Naval Research, and DARPA. He and a Virginia Tech colleague also were recently awarded a $100,000 research grant from Microsoft for using their Hololens headset in a recent study. And Bowman has also consulted with Walt Disney’s Imagineering unit on the developments of its theme parks and resorts. What do you think this portends over in Apple’s R&D department? Discuss in the Apple Hires Virtual Reality & 3D Interface Expert forum over at 3DPB.com.

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