More than 200 million VR devices predicted to be sold by 2020

Apple is doubtless keeping its eye on the virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR) market. While virtual reality (VR) is not a new technology in concept and can trace its origins back to the 1950s, the past few years have witnessed a golden era of investment and product development in the sector, and highly-capable head-mounted displays (HMDs) are now on the verge of commercial deployment. 

VR offerings from Oculus, HTC, and Sony took the recent CES show by storm and are some of the most hotly anticipated new consumer technology products of 2016. Hardware and content companies alike are banking on strong consumer interest in VR over the next several years, driven in large part by gaming applications.

According to a recent report from Tractica, cumulative worldwide sales of VR head-mounted displays will reach 200.1 million units during the period from 2015 through 2020. By the end of that period, HMD shipments are forecast to reach 76.7 million units annually. The market intelligence firm also forecasts that an additional 52.2 million VR accessory devices will be shipped during the same timeframe, with such products including gamepads and VR-specific controllers, hand tracking devices, locomotion devices, and VR vests and suits.

“The second coming of virtual reality is upon us, and industry participants are keen to ensure that products are fine-tuned prior to release in order to avoid a disappointment in this high-potential new category,” says principal analyst Craig Foster. “Content is being slowly pushed out and we are seeing a number of games being developed especially for VR. Some publishers have embraced the new medium is its entirety, while others are watching the space cautiously to determine the appropriate level of investment.”

Tractica’s report features global market forecasts for annual unit shipments and associated revenue during the period from 2014 through 2020. An Executive Summary of the report is available for free download on the firm’s website.

Apple has been hiring engineers to work in the VR field. Apple has also obtained a patent for VR goggles that would use an iPhone as the display unit. The invention is for a "head-mounted display apparatus for retaining a portable electronic device with display." It seems to involve connecting an iPhone (or perhaps an iPod touch) to a GoPro-ish head mount for viewing media on a private display.

The invention would allow users to couple and decouple a portable electronic device with a separate head-mounted device. The iDevice could be physically coupled to the head-mounted device such that the device can be worn on the user's head. The iDevice may be operatively coupled to the head-mounted device such that the device and head mounted device can communicate and operate with one another. Each device "may be allowed to extend its features and/or services to the other device for the purpose of enhancing, increasing and/or eliminating redundant functions between the head-mounted device and the portable electronic device.”

Apple says that the advantage of the invention is that, in addition to being unwieldy, the coupled system" often utilizes redundant features, which are not necessary when using the devices together." The patent filing doesn't mention virtual reality or 3D applications, but that would seem to be a logical extension of such an invention.

It’s probably not a matter of if Apple plans its own smart glasses, but a matter of when.