Apple’s original patent application dates back to 2008, meaning it has been considering the worth of such a project since long before either Gear VR or Cardboard was announced. The patent still works in a very similar manner, however, and includes provisions for using the iPhone screen as the screen for the VR as well as designs which would include docking electronics in the VR headset that could dictate a mode shift on the iPhone to switch to VR content display.
In the detailed description of the invention, Apple stipulates different accessories and hardware features that could be built into its headset, including spare batteries for more power, physical control inputs including buttons, switches and touch-enabled surfaces, a cooling system and even additional on-board memory for media storage.
While third-parties have been eager to try to create a Cardboard-like system for use with the iPhone, including the Zeiss VR One, the Pinc VR headset and variants on Cardboard created by third-party accessory makers like DODOcase, Apple building its own unit would likely exceed all of these in terms of stability and software support.
On the other hand, Apple hasn’t shown much interest in exploring VR tech thus far, and a profile of Apple design chief Jony Ive from this past weekend revealed that the company considered eyewear but went for the wrist with the Apple Watch instead as its first foray into wearable tech. The patent indicates that Apple has considered VR and how it relates to its mobile devices, but that’s probably as far as things will progress, at least for the foreseeable future.