Apple: New patent granted for long-proposed VR headset
Wed 2 Nov 2016
Apple has been granted a new patent at the United States Patent and Trademark Office for a virtual reality device mount that it has been filing IP on since 2007 – before Google Cardboard and similar schemes envisaged using smartphones as cut-price VR screens.
The patent details a set-up now quite familiar to those experimenting with low-end, phone-based VR – a glasses-style headset into which a smartphone (or an iPod, according to the patent) is inserted.
The design also features a touch-slide controller which can adjust audio volume, amongst other possible uses for direct interaction in a VR scenario. The system also makes accommodation for users wearing glasses or contact lenses, and has elaborate features – both practical and in software – for aligning stereoscopic images to where the viewer’s eyes are actually situated.
The headset as specified allows for the traditional VR mounting of a phone so as to completely obscure vision and replace it with the phone’s generation of 3D imagery, or, apparently, to occupy only one eye:
‘The display screen…may be symmetrically centered on the front face of the portable device…or alternatively it may be offset towards one side.’
Not only did Recode’s conviction that the iPhone 7 would include virtual reality innovations not turn out to have any weight, but as far as the latest patent is concerned, small seems to be beautiful: owners of larger-form Apple phones may be surprised to know that the extra screen real estate they treasure is actually a problem in terms of creating a workable and balanced VR headset that doesn’t need to be so far from the viewer’s eyes as to require a distant mount:
‘Because the screen may be so large compared to the viewing distance, the system…may be configured to modify the image based content displayed on the display screen…The system…may also adjust the resolution of the viewable content. For example, the resolution may be increased/decreased to compensate for how close the eyes are to the display screen.’
The design included with the patent does not show any evidence of crossover with Apple’s June patent award for an augmented reality transparent head mounted display. There does not appear to be room in the structure to accommodate the phone and the separate overlaid, HoloLens-style partial display – which presumably uses OLED technology similar to that which Samsung is currently leveraging in its LookThru series.
Though the dual lenses on the iPhone 7 are too close together to have any practical application in transferring a user’s experience in 3D to another user, Recode suggests that it may have value as a stereo mapping sensor, to evaluate the current space for AR experiences, i.e. recognising a wall so that a holographic display could be projected onto it, or it could appear to be removed and replaced with virtual content.
However the pitiful distance between the sensors does seem to make this unlikely – Apple would need to mount two cameras at opposing ends of the iPhone, in a future model, in order to achieve anything like this.
But Apple’s January acquisition of Flyby Media – whose V-Fusion platform addresses the challenge of VR/AR mapping – suggests that Cupertino is way ahead of the rumours and speculation in this regard.
Microsoft has glossed over the ‘mapping problem’ in its own science-fictional publicity for the fascinating HoloLens, but the kind of sonic sensors or software-based image recognition needed to accurately map a room would threaten either the size of the device or its portability.
Apple’s patent of yesterday refers to a number of possible configurations in this regard, with unnamed devices possibly feeding a smartphone display over tethered or wireless, effectively turning the mounted phone into a thin display client for a processing system with more grunt – perhaps the new MacBook Pro, whose disappointing reception does not necessarily reflect its increased processing power.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that augmented reality is of far greater interest to him. Speaking to CBS in September, Cook commented “[AR] gives the capability for both of us to sit and be very present, talking to each other, but also have other visual things for both of us to see. Maybe it’s something we’re talking about – maybe it’s someone else who is not here present, but could be made to appear to be present.”
In 2015 Apple hired an audio engineer specialising in augmented reality, and a few months earlier acquired German augmented reality software developers Metaio. Something new seems to be coming – but the gestation period has been so extended as to suggest that it may not look new, when it finally arrives.