There have been so many differing reports about Apple’s plans for augmented reality wearables in recent months that it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on and what is coming when, but one thing that we can be sure of is that Apple is definitely hard at work on the future of AR gear.
What we know almost for certain is that Apple is working on two different products in parallel: an Oculus style “mixed-reality” headset and a set of more traditional augmented reality glasses.
The headset, which is said to have an internal code-name of N301, seems like it would be predominately aimed at gaming-style applications, since it’s said to similar in design to an Oculus Rift, while the Apple glasses, code-named N421, would have a design more similar to Wayfarers and focus on augmented reality applications in everyday use.
Although much of what we’ve heard comes from either internal leaks within Apple or vaguer predictions from the supply chain, it looks like Apple is now actually moving on to the next stage in the production of actual key components for the new wearables, according to a new report from The Information.
According to the report, Apple has already been prototyping semitransparent lenses for it AR glasses, and this week has given the go-ahead for its supply chain partner Foxconn, to actually begin trial production at its factory in Chengdu in southwestern China, where most of its iPad production also occurs.
That said, this is only one more step in what could still be a much longer road. What it means, specifically, is that Apple’s engineers have now approved and locked down the design of the new lenses, and are testing their suitability for mass production. In other words, Apple now wants to know how many Foxconn can reliably make, how fast it can do so, and what it will actually end up costing in terms of money, time, and resources.
What This Means
Although we’ve heard at least one claim that ‘Apple Glass’ could be unveiled as soon as this year, we remain extremely skeptical about that, since it conflicts with several other more reliable reports, and contrary to what you might think, the start of trial production doesn’t actually change that.
For one thing, this is only for a single component — the semitransparent lenses for the glasses. It’s certainly an important component, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle, and we haven’t yet heard anything about electronics, sensors, or even the display technology that will go into the lenses. It’s also not even clear whether these lenses are for the N421 Apple Glass’ (which isn’t expected to arrive until 2023), or for the N301 mixed-reality headset. The report simply says that they’re for Apple’s “upcoming AR devices.”
Further, the timeline from “trial production” to actual mass production for even this one component could still take a year or two, according to most estimates. In fact, The Information notes that Apple has been working on these semitransparent lenses with Foxconn since 2018 — around the time that it acquired Akonia Holographics, which specialized in projecting images on special lenses, with sources adding that the lenses themselves are still “at least one to two years away from mass production.”
What we do know from the report is that the lenses are made up of “multiple, extremely thin layers of different synthetic materials,” making them very difficult to manufacture. They have to be made in dust-free “clean rooms” to prevent scratches and other imperfections from creeping in between the layers as they’re assembled. The lenses are also said to be thicker than those typically found in eyeglasses, which makes sense considering the technology that will be going into them.
Multiple reliable reports are still predicting that Apple will release its mixed-reality headset sometime in 2022, with the Apple glasses to follow in 2023, although it’s possible that Apple could pre-announce either or both products, as it has done in the past with major new releases like the iPhone, Apple Watch, and even the HomePod, in order to give developers time to get ready.