Apple’s Route to Virtual Reality

on May 26, 2016

Given how focused four of the other major consumer technology players are at the moment on Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, many people are reaching the conclusion Apple must act fast or be left behind. It’s certainly true virtual reality is having its moment and appears to have reached a tipping point of sorts between its long history of over-promising and under-delivering and something that’s actually compelling. However, that doesn’t mean Apple has to introduce VR hardware in the very near future in order to keep up. In fact, following Apple’s long-established patterns of product introductions suggest a different approach.

The Apple Watch as a pattern

In a previous column, I talked about Apple’s slow, subtle build to new products and the way in which eventual product introductions often build on earlier moves which act as enablers, even though the meaning of those earlier moves isn’t always transparent. I used the Watch as an example and cited nine earlier innovations Apple had made as key enablers of the Watch, when its time arrived. There’s definitely a pattern here Apple could follow with an eventual VR hardware product. It means introducing software and, to a lesser extent, hardware features today that would enable such an accessory in the future.

In the case of the Watch, one of the key enabling technologies was Bluetooth LE and the Bluetooth notification extensions Apple introduced in 2012. This enabled third-party hardware manufacturers to create wearable devices which could pair with an iPhone and receive notifications from in a way that was far more efficient than was possible previously. This, in turn, helped enable a market for smartwatches such as the Pebble which tapped into this functionality, several years before Apple introduced its own hardware into the market. In the process, Apple allowed third-party hardware vendors to do a lot of the experimentation, to drive awareness and interest in the category, and to iron out kinks in the model. When it was ready with its own hardware, Apple was able to quickly dominate the smartwatch category and build on things that had and hadn’t worked well with earlier third-party hardware. And importantly, the Apple Watch didn’t require everyone who wanted one to go out and buy a new iPhone, because the companion functionality had been built into several generations of iPhones by that point.

Apple’s first step in VR might not be hardware

If we apply this pattern to Apple’s possible VR strategy, we might well see something other than a VR headset as the first step. In fact, it’s more likely we would see a series of subtle advances in other areas over the next couple of years before Apple finally launches a VR accessory or device. What might some of those steps be? Here are some possibilities:

  • New sensors – iPhones already have a pretty robust set of sensors including accelerometers, gyroscopes, and so on, which can be used by third-party manufacturers for VR experiences. But these aren’t optimized for VR specifically. Tweaking and augmenting these sensors is an obvious thing for Apple to do as an enabler of both its own and third-party VR devices. It might or might not explicitly say this when they’re introduced – such sensors could potentially improve iPhone gaming experiences too, so they could be introduced under that cover rather than as explicit VR enablers.
  • Smart Connector – Apple introduced the Smart Connector into the iPad Pro line last year, but there’s no reason why similar technology shouldn’t come to future iPhones too (early rumors have been inconsistent on this point as regards this fall’s new iPhones). The Smart Connector passes both information and power between the iPad (or iPhone) and an accessory, and would make a great enabler for VR headsets, which could either draw power from the iPhone in this way or provide it with power. Again, it’s likely Apple would have a different announced purpose for the Smart Connector but it could certainly be repurposed for both Apple and third-party VR headsets (just as the iPad Pro Smart Connector is already open to third parties for additional functions).
  • Displays and processors – Apple continues to enhance its displays and its proprietary A-series chips in new versions of the iPhone. The new iPad Pro introduces new color technology which will likely make its way into future iPhones as well, for example. But VR has specific requirements in terms of processing power and displays which will need to be enabled in iPhones that are to be used for optimized VR experiences in future. Again, these enhancements might well be made in the normal course of the iPhone upgrade cycle, but would be critical enablers for better VR experiences in future too.
  • APIs – although some third party VR accessories for the iPhone already exist, truly optimized experiences are likely to require more specialized APIs designed specifically for VR devices. This would be harder for Apple to enable without giving the game away, and perhaps the APIs come later than some of these other advancements as a result. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw VR-specific APIs announced at next year’s WWDC.

Apple will be nowhere in VR – until suddenly it is

The point of all this is to say it looks like Apple is nowhere in VR and that’s technically true from the outside. It has no announced hardware, no software that’s specifically designed to support VR, and the best indicator we have Apple is even aware of the technology is some vague comments from Tim Cook that the category is interesting. And yet, what we could see in a few weeks at this year’s WWDC, and in a few months with the new iPhone launch, is a series of subtle indicators Apple is indeed taking VR seriously and laying the groundwork for a future product in this space. Some of those indicators may be fairly transparent, while others will be harder to discern ahead of time. But, if you’re looking, I bet you’ll start to see them over the next year. This activity will slowly ramp until suddenly Apple reveals a product — and then the strategy will become obvious in hindsight.