Rumours of Apple’s efforts to create an augmented reality headset have been swirling for some time, but there’s been a lot of conflicting reports on exactly what the finished product will look like. From the most optimistic perfective, some have suggested Apple is working on a standalone pair of intelligent AR glasses, while other reports have suggested something more akin to a set of virtual reality goggles.
Of course, it seems more likely that Apple is working on multiple approaches and may even have more than one prototype buried deep within its R&D skunkworks. In the shorter term, however, it seems that what we’ll be seeing from Apple is slightly less ambitious than the completely standalone AR glasses that many have been hoping for.
Well-Known analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has weighed in with new supplier information, reported by Economic Daily News (Google Translate), that now seems to indicate a clearer view of what form the first-generation of Apple’s AR glasses will take.
The report is referring to the product as a “head-mounted AR device” like a headset, as opposed to the AR glasses that many have hoped to see, and Kuo’s sources suggest that Apple is already preparing to enter production with the first model later this year, for a possible release in 2020. This timeline lines up almost perfectly with prior predictions from late 2017 suggesting that Apple would have the technology ready in 2019, with a consumer product expected to be available in 2020.
Significantly — but perhaps not all that surprisingly — Kuo has revealed that the first release of Apple’s AR headset will come as an iPhone-dependent accessory, much like the Apple Watch, rather than a completely standalone device. The report indicates that the iPhone will do the bulk of the heavy lifting to power the headset, providing the processing power, networking connectivity, and even the indoor and outdoor positioning features, leaving the headset/glasses as basically an extended display for what’s happening on the iPhone.
How Will It Work?
This could take a couple of different forms, and can be viewed through the lens of two of the approaches Apple has already taken to its solutions. At its most basic level, Apple’s AR headset could function in the same way that CarPlay does, being simply a second screen for the iPhone that displays information in a manner optimized for an AR glasses application. In this case, the iPhone would handle all of the processing, and the headset would simply display whatever information the iPhone sends to it, likely via a Bluetooth connection.
While this would be the simplest approach from an engineering perspective, it doesn’t quite line up with earlier rumours that Apple’s headset will be getting its own flavour of iOS — reportedly being referred to internally as “rOS” — that would power the headset itself. While this could be something that’s part of Apple’s longer-term plans, it’s also possible that “rOS” could be to Apple’s headset what watchOS is to the Apple Watch. This would suggest a smarter headset that could offer some of its own processing capabilities, and even its own custom apps that wouldn’t be dependent entirely on the iPhone.
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that even Apple’s first-generation of watchOS relied almost entirely on the iPhone for processing. In those early days, the Apple Watch was only slightly better than a second screen to the iPhone, requiring a Bluetooth connection to even run third-party apps. This didn’t change until Apple introduced native app support in watchOS 2.
We’re hopeful, however, that Apple will be able to take the engineering skills that it’s developed in evolving the Apple Watch — the latest versions of which will function even without an iPhone nearby — to get a headstart on its AR headset project. However, augmented reality also requires a lot more power and processing muscle than Apple may be able to cram into a headset right now — especially considering that the aesthetically-conscious company likely prefers to create something that looks more like a pair of glasses or minimalist goggles than a full cyborg visor.
Ultimately, however, this is probably just a matter of technical limitations for now, and Apple probably feels its more important to get a first generation of its AR headset on the market now rather than waiting until it can fulfill its ultimate vision for what the product should look like.