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Here's Everything We Know About Apple's Augmented Reality Plans

By Chris Neiger - Sep 3, 2015 at 4:00PM

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Apple’s made some strategic moves toward augmented reality, but the company is likely years away from releasing a product for consumers.

Apple (AAPL -1.92%) may be gearing up for one of its most important events of the year next week, but news about a recent Apple hire has the tech world talking once again about Apple's plans to enter the world of augmented reality.

This week, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster wrote a research note that a former Apple employee, Nick Thompson, left his post as the HoloLens audio hardware engineering lead at Microsoft and and is now back at Apple. That may not seem very noteworthy in and of itself, but when coupled with other augmented reality moves by Apple over the past few years, its augmented reality plans are starting to come into focus. 

Apple's not sitting idly by
Just so we're all on the same page, augmented reality overlays information and graphics onto the real world via screens or devices in real-time, so that its users can do things like learn about objects in front of them, control virtual objects, or play immersive games.

This is the future if Microsoft's HoloLens has anything to say about it. Source: Microsoft.

While Apple's competitors get a lot of attention for their augmented reality and virtual reality pursuits, Apple's certainly been busy as well. Take a look: 

  • Back in February Apple was awarded a patent for head-mounted display in which an iPhone is slipped into the device as the main screen.
  • Apple's also posted job openings for AR and VR positions, looking for people with "a proven track record in virtual and augmented reality."
  • The company purchased the AR software company, Metaio, back in March, and now owns its 171 pending worldwide patents and 25 U.S. patents.
  • In 2013, Apple bought PrimeSense, the 3D sensor company that made some of the tech found in Microsoft's Kinect.
  • And, of course, the recent hire of Thompson away from Microsoft's HoloLens.

All of these moves certainly don't mean Apple is ready to put an AR device up for sale, but it does show the company is taking the technology seriously. And it should be, because the competition is already heating up.

Keeping up with the Joneses
Last year, Google (GOOG -5.14%) (GOOGL -4.95%) showed its interested in AR when it invested $542 million in Magic Leap (you can check out a video of its work below) -- and, as Munster said in a note first published on Barron’s, Google has pursued other AR and VR avenues like Project Jump and has opened up YouTube to virtual reality content.

And as for Facebook (FB -7.62%), Munster says: (FB -7.62%)

It's widely known Facebook's commitment to VR is highlighted by the company's Oculus acquisition along with subsequent VR-related acquisitions including 13th Lab, Nimble VR, Surreal Vision, and Pebbles Interfaces.

The Oculus Rift VR headset. Source: Oculus.

Last year, Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion and will release its first device, called the Rift, to the public in the first quarter of 2016. While the Rift is a virtual reality headset, and not augmented reality, it still puts Apple far behind the competition when it comes to any type of publicly released immersive computing experience. 

And, of course, I already mentioned earlier that Microsoft's been building HoloLens, which is an AR headset the company hopes people will use for gaming, design, and even research. The HoloLens pairs with gesture controls, leaving the mouse behind. 

The fact is, with all of these major tech players diving into augmented and virtual reality, Apple's latest AR moves should help keep the company from falling too far behind its competition.

Don't hold your breath
While Apple is likely working on its own augmented reality device, it could be many years before it reveals it to the public. Apple tends to be slower to release devices in new segments than other companies.

Which means that it would be perfectly comfortable watching Microsoft, Facebook, and Google sell their devices before it releases its own. But with its current moves, Apple investors can be sure the company isn't overlooking augmented reality, and if you factor in its penchant for secrecy, Apple could be further along than any of us suspect. 

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that it was Google Inc. that invested in Magic Leap.

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