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Apple hires NASA AR/VR expert Jeff Norris to work on future products

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Apple has reportedly hired Dr. Jeff Norris, an augmented and virtual reality specialist who founded the Mission Operations Innovation Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to be part of a special projects team working to bring augmented reality to the masses.

Citing sources familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reports Norris was hired earlier this year and has since filled the role of senior manager on the company's AR team, an effort led by former Dolby Labs executive Mike Rockwell. The team, which reports to SVP of hardware engineering Dan Riccio, is said to be developing a pair of AR glasses, as well as related technologies that could show up on a future iPhone.

According to his website, Norris has successfully developed a number of AR/VR and robotics solutions while at NASA JPL. For example, Norris' team created and experimented with a mixed reality system dubbed Project Sidekick, which utilizes Microsoft's HoloLens goggles to communicate with astronauts on the International Space Station.

Another HoloLens initiative called OnSight offers a platform for the virtual exploration of Mars. The immersive technology was shown off to the public in last year in NASA's "Destination: Mars" museum exhibition.

In addition to heading up mission operations innovation, Norris founded JPL Ops Lab, a branch of the agency tasked with developing human-system interfaces. Using the latest AR and VR technology, JPL Ops Lab developed new methods of controlling robots with tablet interfaces, manipulating robot arms with motion tracking devices like Microsoft's Kinect, and techniques for creating and interacting with holograms.

What, exactly, Norris is working on at Apple remains unclear, but the company has recently shown a growing interest in augmented reality applications. Over the past year, CEO Tim Cook has become a leading proponent of delivering quality AR experiences to consumers, commenting on multiple occasions that the technology has massive potential.

"The smartphone is for everyone, we don't have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: it's for everyone. I think AR is that big, it's huge," Cook said in a recent interview. "I get excited because of the things that could be done that could improve a lot of lives. And be entertaining."

Beyond Cook's comments, evidence that Apple is quickly building out an internal AR team is mounting. The company has over the past two years made a number of strategic hires and segment purchases, including so-called "acqui-hires" like motion capture specialist Faceshift, machine learning and computer vision startup Perceptio and German AR firm Metaio, among others.

The purchases go along with in-house development of transparent displays, iPhone-powered VR rigs, AR maps and other related technologies.

It's unclear when Apple's first dedicated AR product will launch. Rumors suggest the company might debut some ilk of AR into its upcoming "iPhone 8" handset, with full-fledged wearable hardware to follow as soon as next year.