From smartphones to smartwatches, Apple usually lets other companies enter a category first before it dives in, and the same might be true for virtual reality headsets. The company was awarded a patent on Feb. 17 for a head-mounted display that could be powered by an iPhone, resulting in a system very similar to Samsung's Gear VR.
According to Apple Insider, Apple first filed for the device way back in September of 2008, just a year after the first iPhone debuted. The patent says that "the portable electronic device may be operatively coupled to the head-mounted device such that the portable electronic device and head mounted device can communicate and operate with one another." Again, just like the Gear VR.
The most intriguing bit about the concept is that it includes a remote control, which looks similar to an Apple TV remote. This accessory would allow the user to control on-screen content, although it's possible Apple is also working on gesture-based controls. The Gear VR uses a touchpad mounted on the headset itself, but it also supports Bluetooth-enabled gaming controllers.
However, just because Apple has intellectual property related to VR, that doesn't mean the company is going to act on its patent any time soon. It's been awarded all sorts of patents that never left the concept stage.
For the moment, Samsung has a clear advantage in that it has established a partnership with the leading name in virtual reality -- Oculus VR -- whose software powers the Gear VR. Although the Gear VR's content and app selection is skimpy at the moment, Samsung is working fast to remedy that with its Milk VR store. Plus, Facebook, which acquired Oculus for $2 billion, just announced that it is working on Facebook apps for the platform.
As Apple Insider notes, Apple has also been awarded patents for head tracking and augmented reality, so Tim Cook & Co. are probably at least exploring this space. Should it decide to challenge the Gear VR directly, Apple certainly wouldn't have any difficulty drumming up developer support.
Today, the Gear VR works with only the Galaxy Note 4, but it's safe to assume that Apple's headset would support both of its flagship phones. It's also easy to envision Apple creating dedicated VR sections of the iTunes and App Stores. For now, Samsung has the first-mover advantage, but we'll have to see how long that might last.