Apple’s VR ambitions continue. According to a new report from the Financial Times, Apple has acquired an augmented reality startup called Flyby Media, which developed technology that allows mobile phones to “see” the world around them. The company, notably, had worked with Google in the past, as it was the first consumer-facing application to use the image-recognition capabilities found in Google’s “Project Tango.”
In addition, Flyby Media was the vision-based software partner for “Project Tango.” It then used that same IP to develop an app designed for broader consumer use.
The app the company had built let mobile “scan” objects in the real world – like a hat, sign, poster, building, etc. – then save that item to a collection of shared objects. Friends could then send messages to those objects as a way of communicating. It was very much an “internet of things” type of application.
But while the consumer-facing app may have sounded a little gimmicky, the underlying technology is likely what drew Apple’s interest. Its big technical trick, after all, was its ability to “see” and understand the world outside the camera lens.
Flyby Media was founded by Cole Van Nice and Oriel Bergig in 2010, and was joined by CEO Mihir Shah, previously CEO at Tapjoy, at a later date. The company had offices in both New York and Palo Alto, and had raised $13.78 million in outside investment from Chart Ventures Partners and CNF Investments, according to CrunchBase.
Though the Flyby Media website is now down, the company had once described itself as being “dedicated to building new technology that can elevate, rather than replace, our real-world experiences.” Specifically, it said it was developing the next-generation of consumer mobile-social applications that connect the physical world with digital content, and links “real life” to mobile and wearable devices.
The team had capabilities in the areas of large-scale SLAM, indoor navigation, sensor fusion, image recognition and 3D tracking.
Apple has been interested in VR for several years, the FT notes in its report. Under Steve Jobs, the company experimented with VR headsets by building prototypes and it filed several patents before deciding the technology was immature.
But now it seems to be diving back in, amid increased competition in the space from the likes of Samsung with Gear VR, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Magic Leap, as well as significant efforts from Google and Microsoft.
The FT reports, too, that Apple has been building prototypes of possible headset configurations for several months now.
The acquisition comes shortly after news of Apple’s hiring of a top AR/VR specialist, Doug Bowman, the lead author of a book on the technology called “3D User Interfaces: Theory and Practice.” Bowman joins Apple following a sabbatical from his position as a professor of Computer Science and the Director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech.
Apple confirmed the Flyby Media acquisition the way it usually does, by offering a simple statement: “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.”
This is not Apple’s first acquisition in the area of augmented reality. The company bought AR startup Metaio just last year, as well as motion capture tech maker Faceshift. It also bought a motion-sensing company PrimeSense back in 2013.
Word has it that Apple is actively building out a VR team, though it’s not yet clear to what end. That is, the technology could be used to build a competing headset to something like Google Cardboard or Samsung’s Gear VR. Apple could be developing technology that would eventually make it to the iPhone, similar to something like Google’s Project Tango, which brings computer vision to mobile devices. Or it could be developing something else entirely that has yet to be unveiled.