Why Apple's Tim Cook Prefers AR over VR

If there's any doubt about Apple's interest in augmented reality, CEO Tim Cook took to national TV to remind you it's something that's very much on the company's radar.

"There's virtual reality and there's augmented reality," Cook told Good Morning America host Robin Roberts during an interview on that show today (Sept. 14). "Both of these are incredibly interesting. But my own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far."

If you're keeping score at home, that's the second time in three months that Apple's CEO has dropped hints about Apple's AR plans. During Apple's quarterly earnings report in July, Cook told Wall Street analysts that Apple was interested in AR. "We are high on AR for the long run,"Cook said at the time. "We think there's great things for customers and a great commercial opportunity."

MORE: Apple Can Re-Invent Augmented Reality: Here's How

Cook's comments on Good Morning America offered slightly more detail about why Apple's enthusiastic about AR over virtual reality. "This gives the capability of both of us to sit and be very present talking to each other, but also have other things, visually, for both us to see," Cook told Roberts. "Maybe it's something we're talking about. Maybe it's someone else here that is not here, but could be made to appear present with us."

That sounds a lot like the kind of things Microsoft and Meta are doing with their HoloLens and Meta-2 headsets, respectively. Both headsets superimpose images over the real world so that you can work on virtual displays, interact with graphics and conduct video conferences without shutting yourself off from other people in the room. Microsoft has even touted a version of Skype that can run on HoloLens, which sounds exactly like the interactivity Cook is talking about.

In contrast to AR, Cook told Good Morning America that virtual reality has more limited appeal. "Virtual reality sort of encloses and immerses the person into an experience that can be really cool, but probably has a lower commercial interest over time," he said. "Less people will be interested in that."

Cook conceded that there are "a lot of really cool areas" for VR in education and gaming, which is something Apple would be interested in.

What Cook didn't provide during his Good Morning America appearance was any specifics on just what Apple had in mind for either the AR or VR markets, though that's hardly surprising given the company's tight-lipped approach to unannounced products. Whether Apple sees its role on the app side of things or developing its own hardware — and it does have a patent for a head-mounted display powered by an iPhone that sounds an awful lot like the Gear VR — remains unclear.

But it's worth noting Apple's biggest recent successes — the iPhone, the iPad and even the Apple Watch — haven't introduced entirely new products, but rather, rolled out improved versions of existing devices that appealed to a wider audience. It could well be that Apple has a headset of its own in the works that it's hoping will reinvent the AR market in the same way that the iPhone redefined smartphones or the first Apple Watch set the pace for smartwatches.

Whatever Apple is working on, the time may be approaching where it needs to stop dropping hints and start making more definitive announcements. HoloLens is already in the hands of developers. Google announced its Daydream VR platform earlier this year, and phones capable of supporting virtual reality have started to roll out. Intel and Qualcomm are pushing reference designs for standalone headsets. If Apple is as interested in AR as Cook keeps letting on, the pressure is going to mount on the company to start showing it.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.