Tim Cook has dropped the biggest hint yet that augmented reality (AR) is on Apple's product roadmap in a telling interview in which the tech CEO liked the technology to the smartphone, saying it could become a global phenomenon enjoyed by everyone.

In an interview with The Independent, Cook made a number of telling comments about his vision for augmented reality and its potential for consumers. Rather than seeing it as a product, Cook said he viewed augmented reality as a "core technology" similar to that used in the iPhone. Apple's iPhone is credited for revolutionising the mobile market when it was released back in 2007, and Cook's comments appear to suggest that Apple is aiming to bring about a similar paradigm shift with a future augmented reality product.

Apple has been particularly clandestine about its plans for the emergent VR/ AR market, specifically regarding whether it is working on a device headset to rival recent headsets from Samsung, Google and Microsoft.

Rumours so far have indicated that Apple will follow the likes of Microsoft HoloLens and Google's Project Tango down the augmented reality route, rather than making a fully-immersive VR product similar to the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

Cook said this was because virtual reality cut people off from their surroundings, while AR could layer additional information onto their physical surroundings so they could be present at all times.

"Most people don't want to lock themselves out from the world for a long period of time and today you can't do that because you get sick from it," he said. "With AR you can, not be engrossed in something, but have it be a part of your world, of your conversation. That has resonance."

Cook didn't go into specifics about how Apple could hypothetically use the technology, although he did suggest it was a "big idea" that would transcend being a gimmick to become something "that could improve a lot of lives".

Even so, the CEO appeared to suggest that whatever Apple might be planning was still some time away. "There are things to discover before that technology is good enough for the mainstream," he said.

"I do think there can be a lot of things that really help people out in daily life, real-life things, that's why I get so excited about it."