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It seems that Apple’s augmented reality headset vision has taken a far more twisted route than many expected, which explains why we’ve heard so many conflicting rumours over the past few years as to exactly what Apple has been working on and when we’re going to see it.
It’s already been a long road for Apple’s augmented reality wearable project, considering that we first heard rumours of Apple “smart glasses” back in 2016, and by early 2017 there were already reports of suppliers working with Apple, new patent applications, and even the “rOS” operating system that would be used on the device.
What’s interesting is that all of these 2017 reports pointed to a 2019 launch, yet of course that came and went with not a single official peep about the wearable, other than the usual slate of ongoing rumours which culminated in a leak from within Apple that pegged a 2022 release for an AR/VR headset, followed by sleeker Apple glasses in 2023.
The Apple headset, code-named N301, would be a full wearable mixed-reality AR/VR headset that would be similar in design to an Oculus Rift, while the Apple glasses, currently codenamed N421, would be a set of glasses, with a design said to be similar to Wayfarers, that would focus primarily on augmented reality applications.
While there’s been one leaker claiming that we could see the glasses unveiled as early as this fall, that’s somewhat dubious as most other reports simply suggest that everything remains on track for 2022 for the actual headset, and 2023 for the glasses, although it seems likely that Apple could announce one or both of the products next year in order to get developers on board.
How Apple Got Here
Still, these timelines are a far stretch from what we’d been hearing a couple of years ago, and while analyst and supply chain rumours don’t always have extremely accurate predictions when it comes to timeframes, they’re rarely off by multiple years, and there were reports from not just one, but several reliable sources indicating that we really should have seen Apple unveiling a headset by now.
A new in-depth report from Bloomberg casts some interesting light on exactly how Apple has gotten here, and it seems that the headset project had at least one major false start as a result of a major disagreement between two Apple executives as to what form it should take.
Mike Rockwell, who has been heading up Apple’s augmented reality efforts since 2015 under Apple’s hardware division, apparently had a vision for an extremely powerful augmented reality headset that could have blown away anything on the market at the time. Rockwell put together a team of 1,000 engineers to begin development on N301, which would offer the best of both the AR and VR worlds providing graphics and processing speeds that most considered impossible in a wearable product.
Design vs Performance
However, in order to accomplish this, Rockwell’s team proposed a design that didn’t sit well with Apple’s legendary Chief Design Officer, Jony Ive. Rockwell’s vision had processing capabilities that were so advanced that they wouldn’t fit into a headset, so Rockwell proposed that a stationary hub about the size of a small Mac would be needed to power it, connected via a wireless signal.
In Rockwell’s original design, the hub wouldn’t be mandatory — the headset would be able to operate in a less powerful standalone mode — but users would definitely need to be within range of the hub to get the full capabilities.
The design-focused Ive strongly objected to the idea of Apple selling a headset that would require a separate, stationary device. He pushed Rockwell to completely abandon the hub concept and stick with the independent mode that could embed all of the capabilities directly in the headset.
According to sources who worked on the project, however, Rockwell wouldn’t have any of that, as his ambition was to build the most powerful headset ever made — something with “performance so superior that it would blow anything else on the market out of the water.”
This resulted in a standoff between Ive and Rockwell that lasted for months, Bloomberg notes, since even Ive’s legendary status within Apple wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that Rockwell was also highly respected, with a reputation for being “sharp, smart, and effecitive,” and he was being backed up by Apple executives like Craig Federeghi and Johnny Srouji, who oversee software engineering and chip development, respectively.
In the end, it seemed that Apple CEO Tim Cook had to personally step in to stop the impasse and allow the project to move ahead. Cook ultimately sided with Ive, insisting that the headset ultimately focus more on being a well-designed standalone product than worrying about eking out the maximum performance possible.
Even after the conflict was settled, however, the project ended up being set back due to the need to push as much of the processing technology as possible into a standalone headset. Meanwhile, the technology from the hub didn’t get fully abandoned, but was redirected into the ARM chips that Apple has been working on for its Macs.
Less Ambitious, but Still Advanced
Even though Apple’s revised headset may no longer be able to provide the kind of graphics performance that a fully-decked out gaming PC can offer, Bloomberg notes that it’s still going to be “pretty advanced.”
According to sources who have used prototypes, it will feature ultra-high-resolution screens providing an unsurpassed VR experience, along with a cinematic speaker system with fully positional surround sound. Current prototypes are said to look like a smaller version of the Oculus Quest, but with more fabric and less plastic. Apple also reportedly has yet to settle on pricing, since competing products sell for anywhere from $399 for the Oculus Quest to $3,500 for Microsoft’s Hololens 2.
Apple also apparently plans to create its own App Store specifically for the N301, with a focus on gaming, although the headset will also offer video streaming, support for virtual meetings, and of course include Siri support, although it’s also being tested with a physical remote.
The lack of the processing power that Rockwell’s hub would have delivered means that the experience may not be as lifelike as originally envisioned, but it seems that this was actually one of Ive’s objections, as he didn’t want Apple promoting technology that would “take people out of the real world.” In fact, sources suggest that Ive rather grudgingly accepted the AR/VR headset as a necessary project, but personally much preferred the N421 glasses, since they would “keep users grounded in reality while beaming maps and messages into their field of vision.”