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When news broke late last month that Apple was reassigning one of its highest-profile executives, Dan Riccio, over to a “new project,” it didn’t take a lot of clairvoyance to figure out which project that likely was — almost all odds were on Apple’s upcoming “mixed reality” AR/VR headset.
After all, you don’t take your Senior VP of Hardware Engineering — the man responsible for overseeing everything from the first iPad to the M1 Apple Silicon transition — and give him just any old project. If you’re going to make a change like that, you know it’s going to be something colossal, and there are only two “big somethings” on the horizon right now.
On the one hand, there is the Apple Car, which until recently was being headed up by Riccio’s predecessor, Bob Mansfield, who famously came back out of retirement to head up the project. However, although Mansfield retired for good late last year, there’s every indication that was as a result of his expertise no longer being required for Project Titan, since it happened at the same time as the entire project moved into Apple’s artificial intelligence division to be headed up by Riccio’s counterpart on the machine learning side, Senior VP John Giannandrea.
Plus, by all estimates the Apple Car is still years away — 2024 at the very most optimistic estimates. On the other hand, most analysts are now suggesting that Apple’s first augmented reality headset could be ready for an unveiling as soon as this fall — although most estimates suggest it may not go on sale until early next year.
With the product actually nearing release, it was a pretty safe bet that it was time for Apple to bring in its A team, and not surprisingly this is exactly where Riccio has ended up, according to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman.
Specifically, Riccio has been tagged to swoop in and directly oversee the team that’s developing all of Apple’s future AR and VR headsets — not just the upcoming premium $3,000 “mixed reality” headset that’s said to be coming first, but also the longer-term Apple Glasses project, and everything else that Apple may be doing in between.
While Apple’s skunkworks projects like the Apple Car and AR headset tend to fit into a class by themselves, technically speaking, they are hardware projects and therefore would have already fallen under Riccio’s purview in his previous role as the Senior VP of Hardware Engineering, however that would have been alongside pretty much every other piece of hardware that Apple makes, from the iPhone and iPad to the entire Mac lineup.
It’s a sizeable portfolio, and one that’s now been handed over to Riccio’s chief lieutenant, John Ternus, who has been elevated into the Senior VP suite, while Riccio technically takes a step down into what Apple describes as “his new position as a vice president of engineering,” although he’ll also be reporting directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Of course, there’s more to life than just having a title, and it’s apparent that what Riccio will be doing in his new VP role is going to be much more interesting and groundbreaking than anything he could accomplish while working at the higher level. More to the point, however, it also looks like he’s responding to a clear need within Apple to help get the project back on track.
According to Gurman, the headset has faced some development challenges, which isn’t all that surprising since by all recent reports it’s an extremely ambitious project, expected to pack in dozens of cameras, LiDAR scanners, and even a CPU that could outperform Apple’s already insanely powerful M1 chips.
The Most Powerful Headset Ever
Apple’s AR headset ambitions have also walked a long road, with at least one or two false starts on the design direction that they were going to take. For example, Mike Rockwell, who has been heading up the project since coming over from an executive VP position with Dolby back in 2015, wanted to make the headset so powerful that it would require an external hub about the size of a Mac mini to handle all of its processing, transmitting information to the actual headset either via a cable or wirelessly. Apple’s Chief Design Officer, Jony Ive, vetoed that idea, pushing Rockwell to abandon the hub concept entirely.
However, Rockwell continued to insist on doing whatever was required to build the most powerful headset ever made — his ambition was to create something that would “blow anything else on the market out of the water,” and it could very well be that it’s taken until now, with Apple’s significant jumps in Apple Silicon, to get the technology to the point where it will satisfy that ambition.
However, despite Riccio’s arrival as the main project lead, it appears that Rockwell will continue to lead the project on a day-to-day basis, and according to Gurman he currently has well over a thousand engineers actually working on the mixed reality headset as well as the longer-term Apple Glasses.
Meanwhile, it appears that Apple is bringing another major player into the mix, with reports that Johny Srouji, Apple’s Senior VP of Hardware Technologies and the legendary chip designer behind all of Apple’s A-series chips and the M1 chip, is gaining a new team under his umbrella — the group working on in-house displays and camera technology, both of which are expected to be key components in Apple’s new AR headset, which is expected to feature multiple AR cameras and a pair of 8K displays.
As Gurman notes, these moves apparently haven’t been particularly sudden, as the writing has been on the wall within Apple for several months that these changes were coming. Riccio began handing off a lot of his oversight responsibilities to Ternus as far back as last March to help prepare him for the ascendancy to the head of Hardware Engineering, and in fact the only ones that Riccio continued to take direct responsibility for were AR and VR work, custom screens, and camera hardware.