If augmented reality and immersive 3-D experiences are the next big thing, Facebook and Google are already there.
Facebook has snapped up at least five companies in the virtual reality/augmented reality space, including Oculus, maker of the Cadillac of VR goggles, for $2 billion last summer.
Google's Cardboard, a fold-out kit for turning any Android smartphone into a crude VR headset, is already on version 2.0.
Now, according to Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster, Apple has entered the Twilight Zone.
In a note to clients Monday, Munster reports that Cupertino has assembled its own team of virtual and augmented reality engineers and is "exploring the [augmented reality] space."
- Apple spent $32 million in March to acquire the engineering team at Metaio, a software company with dozens of virtual reality patents.
- In late 2013 Apple acquired PrimeSense for $345 million. Its engineers are best known for designing the first motion sensors for Microsoft's Xbox Kinect.
- Apple has hired an unnamed expert that Munster describes as the lead audio engineer from Microsoft's Hololens project, which alters the direction sounds seem to come from depending on how you turn your head.
"While augmented reality is likely 10 years away from broader consumer adoption," Munster writes, "we believe it has the potential to be as profound a technology platform as the smartphone today."
That's a pretty bold claim, especially given the kinds of applications Munster mentions: Gaming, telepresence, overlay holograms for navigation, etc.
It's hard to see Apple getting excited about any of those markets—even immersive gaming.
But the fact that Apple is investing anything in the technology suggests that it sees a broader market, one closer to the intersection of technology and the liberal arts.
My guess? Apple, with its Pixar connections, is looking—for starters—at the same application that's caught Hollywood's attention: Personalized, immersive story telling.
Think of it as 3-D movies that you don't have to go to the CinemaPlex to experience.
If the content ever catches up to the technology, according to research cited by Variety in January, the market for personalized VR devices could grow from 200,000 users in 2014 to 170 million in 2018.
That's big enough to get Apple's attention.
Add some haptic feedback for touching and feeling, and who knows where this could go. See, for example, here (not entirely safe for office viewing).