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January 22, 2016 12:57 am

Apple hires leading virtual reality researcher

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FILE - MARCH 25, 2014: According to reports, Facebook will acquire virtual realty tech company Oculus Rift for $2 billion. An attendee wears an Oculus Rift HD virtual reality head-mounted display at he plays EVE: Valkyrie, a multiplayer virtual reality dogfighting shooter game, at the Intel booth at the 2014 International CES, January 9, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. AFP PHOTO /ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

Oculus Rift headset

Apple has hired one of the top US researchers in virtual reality, as it looks to catch up to Facebook, Alphabet, Microsoft and Samsung in what many see as the next big shift in computing platforms.

Doug Bowman recently joined Apple after going on sabbatical from his post as computer science professor at Virginia Tech, where he had been director of its centre for human-computer interaction for around five years.

According to his academic profile, Mr Bowman focused his research on “three-dimensional user interface design and the benefits of immersion in virtual environments”.

His experience spans both fully immersive VR, as used in Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive headsets, as well as augmented reality, where transparent visors such as Microsoft’s Hololens, Google Glass and secretive start-up Magic Leap mingle digital images with the real world still visible.

Apple has filed patents for smartphone-based VR headsets and made several acquisitions that seem to point to a growing interest in the technology, including emotion-recognition software Emotient, which emerged earlier this month, as well as Metaio and Faceshift last year.

While no product has yet emerged from those deals, people in the industry say that Apple has shown growing interest in VR research over the past six months. Its latest hire is the strongest sign yet of the iPhone maker’s intent, which analysts speculate could range from building a headset of its own to new kinds of automotive controls and displays.

Apple declined to comment.

Mr Bowman is highly regarded by his peers in academia and has won several industry prizes for his work in VR and 3D interfaces in the last few years.

In November, he and a Virginia Tech colleague were also among the first recipients of a $100,000 research grant from Microsoft for using its Hololens headset, for a study on “collaborative analysis of large-scale mixed reality data”. He has also consulted for Walt Disney’s Imagineering unit, which develops its theme parks and resorts.

While relatively few headsets are in widespread use today, ahead of the launch of Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive in the next few months, tech companies are already jostling for position in a market that Goldman Sachs predicts could be worth $80bn by 2025.

Unlike Google, Samsung and Oculus, who have been very public about their VR works-in-progress, Apple’s secrecy means it is unclear how far along any product development in this area might be.

Google recently appointed Clay Bavor, former head of its apps unit, as vice-president of virtual reality, as it steps up its investment in smartphone-based VR products such as Cardboard.

“We believe VR/AR has the potential to spawn a multibillion-dollar industry, and possibly be as game changing as the advent of the PC,” Goldman analysts wrote in a note to clients last week. If VR headsets saw “accelerated uptake”, sales of $110bn by 2025 would outstrip television sets, tablets and desktop PCs, Goldman added.

The analysts said that they did expect Apple to participate in the market, despite the lack of public initiatives from the company.

“As the use cases of VR/AR are still in very early stages of development, we suspect that Apple is trying to gain a greater understanding of how consumers want to interact with the technology and the associated challenges before making its first move,” Goldman said.

Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight, said it was “unthinkable” that Apple has not been “quietly exploring this area” given the “red hot” technology and its broad application, from entertainment to education and travel.

“I’d wager that there is a substantial team within Apple figuring out how the company will play a role in this technology,” he said. “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.”

He added that Mr Bowman’s experience may also bolster Apple’s automotive plans.

“3D user interfaces are gaining momentum as a future interaction paradigm for carmakers as evidenced at CES,” Mr Wood said. “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.”

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