From smartphones to smartwatches, Apple usually lets other companies enter a category first before it dives in, and the same might be true for virtual reality headsets. The company was awarded a patent on Tuesday (Feb. 17) for a head-mounted display that could be powered by an iPhone, resulting in a system very similar to Samsung's Gear VR.
According to Apple Insider, Apple first filed for the device way back in September of 2008, just a year after the first iPhone debuted. The patent says that "the portable electronic device may be operatively coupled to the head-mounted device such that the portable electronic device and head mounted device can communicate and operate with one another." Again, just like the Gear VR.
MORE: Samsung Gear VR Review: Virtual Reality with a Smartphone
The most intriguing bit about the concept is that it includes a remote control, which looks similar to an Apple TV remote. This accessory would allow the user to control on-screen content, although it's possible Apple is also working on gesture-based controls. The Gear VR uses a touchpad mounted on the headset itself, but it also supports Bluetooth-enabled gaming controllers.
However, just because Apple has intellectual property related to VR, that doesn't mean the company is going to act on its patent any time soon. It's been awarded all sorts of patents that never left the concept stage.
For the moment, Samsung has a clear advantage in that it has established a partnership with the leading name in virtual reality -- Oculus VR -- whose software powers the Gear VR. Although the Gear VR's content and app selection is skimpy at the moment, Samsung is working fast to remedy that with its Milk VR store. Plus, Facebook, which acquired Oculus for $2 billion, just announced that it is working on Facebook apps for the platform.
As Apple Insider notes, Apple has also been awarded patents for head tracking and augmented reality, so Tim Cook & Co. are probably at least exploring this space. Should it decide to challenge the Gear VR directly, Apple certainly wouldn't have any difficulty drumming up developer support.
Today, the Gear VR works with only the Galaxy Note 4, but it's safe to assume that Apple's headset would support both of its flagship phones. It's also easy to envision Apple creating dedicated VR sections of the iTunes and App Stores. For now, Samsung has the first-mover advantage, but we'll have to see how long that might last.
- HoloLens Hands-on: Microsoft Leapfrogs Apple in Innovation
- Gear VR Hits Best Buy, Health Disclaimers Abound
- HP's Virtual Reality Display Blows Our Minds
Mark Spoonauer is the editor in chief at Tom's Guide. Follow him at @mspoonauer. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.
damn patent office!
I don't get it. I just don't get it.
Wow, I would have never thought of that! (like.. you know... closing your blinders so that the TV looks like its not there, just the image).
I don't think it's as much copying as it is as studying the market and what's working and what's not, then executing. For example, tablets existed long before the iPad, but Apple found a way to make them easier to use. We'll have to see if being a "fast follower" helps in the wearables era, which includes the watch and possibly VR.
Thanks for the response.
The problem with the patent is that it specifies a phone, rather than a display. Head-mounted displays have been around for decades. Using the display on your phone instead of a dedicated display is what I'd call "obvious", and in fact not even an invention. Otherwise you're opening up the door to all sorts of stupid patents like using your TV as a computer monitor, or using a white wall as a projector screen, or using your car's engine as an emergency power generator.