Apple pushes into virtual reality by hiring top researcher

Apple is getting more serious about virtual reality, hiring the head of Virginia Tech's Center for Human-Computer Interaction.

Apple has lured a top virtual reality researcher away from Virginia Tech, according to the Financial Times. The move could give Apple a chance to catch up with rivals Samsung Electronics, Microsoft, Google and Facebook, which have all made plays in the virtual reality field.

The researcher, Doug Bowman, had been a professor of computer science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and director of its Center for Human-Computer Interaction. He recently joined Apple after a short sabbatical, the Financial Times reported.

Bowman worked on three-dimensional user interface design in academia, looking at the benefits of immersion in virtual environments, and led the 3D interaction group.

Only a few months ago, Bowman and a colleague won a US$100,000 research award from Microsoft to study the collaborative analysis of large-scale mixed-reality data using that company's Hololens virtual reality headset.

Facebook bought its way into virtual reality research with the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, at a stroke transforming the Oculus Rift headset from a gaming peripheral into something much bigger.

Samsung's pitch is the Gear VR headset, which it expects will be used to view movies and games running on its flagship smartphones. It uses some Oculus technology.

While Google's high-tech Glass headset got a lot of attention, it wasn't a virtual reality device, providing only a small window of information overlaid on one eye's view of actual reality. The company's VR play is a distinctly low-budget affair, a cardboard blindfold into which you can slide a smartphone. By splitting the screen and displaying different images in front of each eye, apps can create stereoscopic virtual reality imagery.

Compared to even to that low-tech approach, though, Apple appears to be still in the starting blocks.

Last February the company was granted a patent on what looks like a VR headset that it filed for back in 2008, but so far the closest thing to that on the market is a Viewmaster headset for the iPhone from Mattel, a throwback to the stereoscopic slideshow toys older readers may have played with as children.

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