Apple’s Route to Virtual Reality

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.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

1,320 thoughts on “Apple’s Route to Virtual Reality”

  1. Smart Connector point seems extraneous. Lightning handles all the functions you listed. Unless you expect people to wear iPhones on their faces, which is the shortcut others are using, it seems better to plug in a VR headset like headphones.
    Perhaps the iPhone would be held in hand to track arm movement, wired to the VR headset that tracks head movement. System could be further enhanced by an Apple Watch tracking the other hand, coordinated with visual tracking from a mounted iPad. Otherwise, a headset and iPhone in pocket would suffice for current VR experiences.

  2. Sensible points.
    The other issue would be development of VR content:
    1) right now it is not clear what content would be most compelling; gaming, virtual sightseeing, educational, movies, etc. — There will need to be a fair bit of experimentation to find out what works best.
    2) radio/podcasts are cheapest, TV is more expensive, but full VR may be very expensive. — Content may remain limited on account of its cost.
    3) development of VR production and editing tools. — Without good tools the supply of VR content will be constrained on account of its complexity.

    1. If Apple wants to starts its own media production (which I personally think would be a terrible loss of focus), it should create some really remarkable series designed for VR viewing from the beginning and release them with their VR device.

      It makes me sad that Game of Thrones isn’t a VR viewable series. (Until neural networks get around to recreating plausible full 3D creations from video.)

  3. the problem is: those apple customers who are really interested in vr will start to buy android phones. and there will be many who are interested because of the daydream push. apple will lose market share in china.

    1. I bought Palm and then Windows phones before the iPhone existed. They only made me want an iPhone more. If Apple’s VR is great out of the gate it won’t matter what anyone’s share was.

      1. how can it be great out of the gate when it takes years to build great vr experiences? sure, they could hire some devs but they can never keep up with 100s of 1000s who develop for android.

        1. Apple’s work on VR and AR dates as far back as 1995. Apple routinely keeps its work secret, which leads to people thinking Apple isn’t doing anything in area X or area Y. It’s an easy mistake to make.

          1. uhm, sorry, but nothing you say is a response to my comment on game development (or other experiences).

          2. I think we may both have valid and compatible views.

            Apple may not go after the hard core game market so you could be right about games for serious gamers.

            Gamers will put up with a lot of hardware and software issues if it gets them a great game experience. The general population not so much. So for hardcore gaming, maybe Apple will lose that market, but they will likely go after the general market with something that works with much less effort and is useful for lots of things beyond games.

            Or maybe VR will finally get Apple interested in better supporting high end gaming. The same tech (high res, high frame rate, low latency) will benefit anyone in any kind of immersive environment whether its a game, watching videos, education, remote work or whatever.

            It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but there will be room for any company to come in from behind (including Apple) for as long as the VR market is a small percentage of the general consumer market. And several times Apple has managed to be the company that made that transition happen.

          3. maybe it is not as complicated as i think it is. maybe developers can port their vr experiences over to ios easily. idk how much work that is. then it’s probably possible for apple.

          4. @user2:

            I’m going out on a limb here… but I’m guessing VR engines will be just as portable as gaming engines are today. Furthermore, why do you think Apple has to compete with the 100’s and 1000’s and Android developers? There are 1,000,000’s of iOS developers that could just as easily jump on the bandwagon. After all, Apple didn’t port all the latest gaming engines to iOS, gaming developers did and other developers used those engines to create games.

            And you’re completely forgetting the fact that ONLY Apple has been capable of shifting their user base to newer versions of the OS and newer technologies for that matter. 90% of iOS devices are running iOS 9 – that’s well above 800 million devices.

            “I’m still trying to find your comment on game development (or other experiences).”

            I’m sorry, I do not see any remarks regarding game development in any of your comments. But I will say this… iOS is the mobile game development platform to be reckoned with. “Metal” brings to iOS (and OS X) all the advantages that DirectX brought to Windows – without the required support of GPU manufacturers.

            And to your original comment… What advantages does Android have over iOS now in the VR space? iOS devices all sit at the top of the pile regarding (real world) graphics capabilities. Hell, the A9X is capable of editing and viewing three 4K streams simultaneously, which is something many desktops can’t even do.

          5. Uhm… if Apple doesn’t Release a vr product then how do these 100k developers develop? I argued that when ios finally supports vr and developers Start to work Android will already have great vr experiences and Apple will have lost market share because you can’t Release a platform and then in weeks it’s filled with Software products.
            I talked about vr experiences in my first comment. How are those made? Like 3d games. Didn’t know that’s so complicated.

          6. If only Apple had experience creating a platform developers would develop for and make money, or a base of customers who are interested in what they would create. They are so out of their depth. They should stick to fishing.


          7. Who said Apple isn’t releasing a VR product? That’s the point I made in my original reply to you, Apple has decades of experience in VR. It’s quite foolish to assume they haven’t been working on a VR product for years already. In fact if you look at the roadmap of iOS and iPhone development it is obvious Apple has been putting the necessary pieces in play for many years.

            Keep in mind that Daydream VR was only just announced and Google has said no current Android smartphones will be powerful enough to deliver Daydream. The vast majority of Android device sales are cheaper good enough phones, and those won’t be able to run Daydream. I think you’re overestimating how many Android users will be able to experience Daydream when it actually ships.

            Developers follow the money, and on that front Apple is in fine shape. Apple dominates the high end segment of the market, and that’s where the money is.

          8. First of all… For the last 30 years, VR has been been extremely limited… there’s no reason to assume it is not at this point. Just because there are all these pie-n -the-sky projects does not mean it has gone main stream.

            VR is still a very limited scope technology. It is still a “me” experience. Nothing that has come out makes it any different. You have to wear goggles around your head and experience it FOR YOURSELF.

            People aren’t walking around in the real world now or even i the near future with this technology… Companies that are investing in it are living a pipe dream. they are GEEKS… looking for the next GEEK thing to experience.

          9. I’m still trying to find your comment on game development (or other experiences).


          10. I agree. It is too bad. You may have even had a point. too bad you couldn’t communicate it.


          11. If you’re talking about gaming platforms, both iOS and the Mac have a robust developer community. Given Apple’s long history of research and development in VR and AR, there’s no reason to think Apple wouldn’t also be successful if gaming largely shifts to VR.

        2. You mean like the 1000’s of Windows tablet developers prior to iPad or the 1000’s of Windows smartphone developers prior to iPhone?

          When well designed systems create a step increase in customer demand and therefore developer adoption, it resets the competitive landscape. It doesn’t matter if supplier X has 100% of a market if the market suddenly increases by 10x. Then they only have 10%.

          When Android VR systems are so painless and useful that three-year-old kids and grandmothers are using them, then Apple might be too late. But nobody is shipping VR systems like that yet.

          1. sorry, but nothing you say is a response to my comment on game development (or other experiences).

  4. Tangentially related: good article about the challenges of VR. from a tech expert. We’ll see if business and marketing triumph over tech ^^

    Funniest serious explanation of nausea (I’m a sufferer) I’ve ever read:

    So what happens when the convergence system says “It’s 2 meters away” and the focusing system says “It’s more than 3 meters away”?

    In the real world, this simply cannot happen…so what have our caveman-evolved brains been wired to do under those circumstances? Well, some people simply reject the focus information and rely on other cues. But other people’s brains say “This is an impossibility – we must be hallucinating”…and if you’re hallucinating, and you’re a caveman, then you’ve probably eaten something poisonous – a “magic mushroom” maybe? And when that happens, your brain goes into panic mode and tries to empty this substance from your stomach…and you feel very, very nauseous.