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Apple reveals what might be next for your screen

NextVR executive chairman Brad Allen watches the Golden State Warriors season opener against the New Orleans Pelicans during a demonstration of NextVR's virtual reality technology at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015. Using the virtual reality glasses, fans could see the action in 360 degrees in real time. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) (Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)

(CNN) — Apple has come a long way from its origins as a small-time PC maker for hobbyists. But one thing has remained remarkably consistent about Apple over the past 44 years: It’s been stuck in two dimensions.

Everything from the Apple II to the iPod to the iPhone has been about reinventing the way we interact with the world on a 2D screen. Apple fans have been clamoring for the Next Big Thing for some time — particularly since Steve Jobs passed away in 2011.

This week, Apple gave its customers an idea about what might be next, and it could help change the way people interact with their screens and their environments forever.

Apple bought NextVR, a virtual-reality broadcasting company. NextVR records live events, including sports and concerts, using special 3D camera equipment. People with virtual reality headsets, such as Facebook’s Oculus, can stream the events to get an immersive experience — turn your head, and you can see different parts of the venue, just like you’re there.

The VR promise

Ho, hum, right? VR has been a promise for years, but its audience is primarily a niche group of gaming nerds. And mainstream consumers aren’t exactly reaching for their wallets so they can strap on an expensive headset to watch a relatively limited amount of content.

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Well, not so fast: VR adoption has been soaring. Facebook makes the vast amount of its money from ads, but the majority of its non-ads business is Oculus sales, and that segment rocketed 80% higher in the first quarter.

Sales could rise even further this quarter. Without movie theaters to go to during the pandemic, VR could provide a welcome escape.

VR and AR headsets are out there. Oculus is the best-known, but Microsoft has HoloLens, Google brought back its ill-fated Google Glass, and Samsung has a headset that you can snap a Galaxy smartphone into to watch VR content. Some lesser-known tech companies like HTC have VR headsets, too. The problem is they’re all a little awkward and some are half-baked.

AR games are growing in popularity. Pokémon Go was a sensation for a while: Look at the world through your phone to collect Pokemon characters that might be lurking behind a sign post in your neighborhood.

The technology has a ways to go, but the promise is cool: With VR, you can feel physically present in the game or movie, interacting with the “world” around you. With AR, you interact with the actual world around you with enhancements that could show you directions and notifications without constantly peering down at your phone.

Why Apple?

Apple doesn’t want to be caught flat-footed if and when mainstream consumers finally adopt virtual reality and its less-closed-off cousin, augmented reality. And if Apple does embrace the technology, which it has been long-rumored to, it could be the company that finally breaks through.

If any company is going to help make a funky-futuristic technology popular, it’s Apple. It has a way about bringing strange technologies to the forefront. Apple’s magic isn’t quite as simple as slapping an Apple logo on a preexisting technology and making it seem “normal.” But it’s close.

Apple was the first company to bring the mouse and a graphical interface to a mainstream audience. The iPod introduced digital music to a mass audience that was stuck on CD players. The iPhone and iPad brought touchscreens to the forefront when keyboards and styluses were all the rage. And Apple Pay helped popularize contactless payments, which we’re all grateful for during the pandemic.

VR seems far off in the future, but Apple knows we won’t be carrying around and looking at phone screens for the rest of time. Whether it’s a pair of glasses or contact lenses or some other technology that replaces the iPhone, it’s coming.

Apple blew up its Mac business when it developed the iPhone and iPad. Apple wants to blow up those businesses, too … before someone else beats it to the punch.

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