Although some held out hope that Apple would pull a “One More Thing” rabbit out of its hat last week by announcing new augmented-reality glasses, the kind of magical product that Apple is hoping to produce seems likely to still be some time away.
A new patent application discovered by VentureBeat gives us another glance at exactly how futuristic and groundbreaking Apple’s AR glasses are likely to be, with the suggestion that they could be built using new “retinal hologram projectors.”
While the term sounds like something out of an episode of Star Trek, what it actually refers to, as described in the application, is a set of miniature projectors that would bounce light off the lens of the glasses, reflecting it into your eyeballs where it would be seen as a holographic image.
To be clear, however, this is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than simply projecting a flat image or text overlay onto the lens; what we’re talking about here is an image with three-dimensional depth and multiple fields of view. According to the patent application, the projector would actually emit an array of lasers, using other components such as mirrors and holographic lenses to create 3D augmented images. Multiple projectors could also be used, overlapping to create images with more depth.
Holograms and Lasers
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of Apple exploring this area, and in fact last year it purchased Akonia Holographics, a company that produces the kind of components that could make this kind of technology a reality. Founded by holography scientists in 2012, Akonia’s primary product was “the world’s first commercially available volume holographic reflective and waveguide optics for transparent display elements in smart glasses,” which sounds very similar to the technology being described in this patent application.
A leaked safety document in 2017 also revealed that Apple had been working with laser and vision technology even back then, reporting that employees had suffered eye problems after working with prototype hardware involving lasers. Of course, the report didn’t go so far as to disclose what those prototypes were for, so they could just as easily have been early implementations of Face ID or other biometrics.
It’s not even clear if Apple has decided on what the final form of its augmented reality glasses or headset will look like. Some reports have suggested that Apple is also pursuing a more traditional mixed-reality or virtual-reality headset similar to an Oculus device, while other reports, such as this most recent patent, point to a more traditional set of glasses, more akin to Google Glass. Of course, it’s also possible that Apple may be working on more than one product.
Most significantly, however, there’s been a lot of new code found in iOS 13 that provides the user interface for a new augmented reality headset — so much so that it would be surprising if Apple doesn’t have some form of the AR headset coming soon, even if it’s not as cool as a retinal hologram projector sounds.
Knowing Apple’s tendency to play the long game, its entirely possible that it’s already thinking of second- and third-generation devices, or other directions in which it could take the technology. Holographic glasses seem likely to still be a ways off, since they’re ambitious not only in terms of the advanced science and technology behind them, but also the challenges of lining up a supply chain that can actually produce the unique components that would be required for these kinds of glasses, and do so at the necessary scale.
Of course, the usual disclaimer also applies here when looking at patents — Apple applies for, and even gets granted, many patents that never make it into a final product, either because they’re just too ambitious to pull off, or they were simply filed as defensive patents in the first place.