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One of Apple’s most-anticipated projects of the past few years may be inching closer to a release this year, with a new supply chain report that a final “AR glasses prototype” has just passed another hurdle on its way to becoming a reality.
According to DigiTimes (via MacRumors) the prototype for Apple’s augmented reality glasses is about to enter the “second phase” of development, industry sources say, and while it’s not entirely clear what happens during this phase, it shows that Apple is getting closer to a finished product, since it appears to have narrowed the playing field down to a single contender.
The report does note that at least one “third phase” still remains, which is expected to happen a few months from now, after which the final wearable — presumably no longer a “prototype” by that point — would begin its engineering verification testing, or “EVT” phase, which is the last stage before it gets green-lit for mass production.
While venerable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo shared predictions earlier this week that an “augmented reality device” is coming from Apple this year, he declined to offer any specifics on what that might be. This latest timeline offered up by DigiTimes sort of lines up with the possibility of a late 2021 release, but only if everything goes perfectly according to plan.
With the “third phase” still a few months away, and the EVT process normally taking 6-9 months, it would be a hard push for this particular version of Apple’s AR glasses to be ready to debut this fall, although it’s conceivably possible Apple could unveil them at a special event with an actual release date further into the future.
It’s also possible that the DigiTimes report may be referring to a different product from Kuo’s predictions, since there have been several reliable reports that Apple is working on not one, but two augmented reality wearables — a headset and a set of glasses.
In fact, the most reliable of these reports came from within Apple itself, when the company’s own AR/VR team lead, Mike Rockwell, actually held an internal all-hands meeting in the Steve Jobs Theatre outlining Apple’s plans to a capacity crowd of staff members. At that time, several people who were at that meeting said that Apple was working on an augmented-reality headset for a 2022 release, followed by an actual set of AR glasses that would come sometime in 2023.
It stands to reason that Apple’s first kick at the can for an AR wearable would be a full headset, since this is clearly much easier to build and design than a pair of glasses, and most reports suggest that Apple is working on a slimmed down and sleeker version of the Oculus Quest, with a design that reduces them down to something akin to ski goggles.
The device has been code-named N301, and while the original release was pegged as 2022, it’s conceivably possible that Apple is ahead of schedule. Either way, if Kuo’s predictions are correct, this is the device that he’s almost certainly referring to.
That said, it’s almost certain that Apple will reach out to developers ahead of time to ensure that great software experiences are available for the headset right out of the gate, and that would need to happen sometime this year. What’s less clear, however, is whether Apple will simply invite select developers to develop apps and games under strict non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), or make a bigger splash by showing off a preview of the new headset at WWDC, much like it did with the Apple Watch and the HomePod, both of which were unveiled by Apple almost a year before they went on sale.
Apple’s considerably more ambitious project is “Apple Glass” — a set of actual wearable spectacles that would feature augmented reality screens built right in. These would be far less immersive than a full headset, which is why it makes sense for Apple to have both products in its lineup, but they’re also considerably more challenging to build, especially to Apple’s usual standards.
This is the main reason why we took an early 2019 report that Apple Glass could have been unveiled last fall with a grain of salt. The information, which came from prolific leaker Jon Prosser, indicated that Apple’s first AR wearable would be coming in early 2021, but actually went so far as to suggest that it would be Apple Glass, not the AR headset, and that Apple originally planned to release it last fall as a “One More Thing” at its annual iPhone event, but that it simply chose to delay the product due to the inability to hold an actual in-person event in the midst of the global health pandemic.
It was a timeline on both counts that flew in the face of everything else we had heard, and was widely disputed by other reliable sources such as Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, who insisted that what Prosser was referring to was the “N301” AR headset, and not the actual glasses, which seemed more logical considering that Prosser did acknowledge that a late 2020 or early 2021 release would be nothing more than a preview for a product that wasn’t expected to go on sale before the end of the year.
In that sense, everything may in fact be lining up — as long as we assume that everyone is talking about a headset here, and not Apple Glass, which is likely still at least another year away.
Most sources over the past few months have been sitting on the fence between late 2021 and early 2022 for when Apple’s first AR headset will become available, but it’s somewhat harder to predict when Apple will choose to announce the new product, since when it comes to entirely new product categories, if often unveils them months in advance.
While Kuo has been the most noncommittal of all in terms of exactly what we’ll be seeing, he’s also not a traditional “leaker” but rather a professional market analyst who prepares notes for investors, and hence has no reason to sensationalize his predictions for an audience of Apple fans. However, after citing a 2022 release date for the past couple of years, his sudden shift to suggesting that we could see an augmented reality wearable later this year is fairly significant by itself, and combined with this latest DigiTimes report suggests that this could be the year of some really big things for Apple.