A new report sheds light on behind-the-scenes details of Apple's AR and VR headset development. Reported by Bloomberg, the news details how the company has been working on a powerful headset with both augmented reality and virtual reality capabilities, and had internal differences on the approach.
As per Bloomberg, Apple begin work on a headset with both AR and VR capabilities in 2018. After Apple Watch, this headset is expected to be the next major product launch from Apple. A team of more than a 1,000 engineers in Apple called Technology Development Group (TDG), lead by Mike Rockwell, begin work on two products which would target the VR and AR product categories. The first one would focus on the best gaming and content consumption experiences, while the second one would focus on overlaying apps such as text messaging and maps, in front of the wearer's vision.
A device code-named N301 would take the best of both VR and AR—the first an all-encompassing digital experience for gaming and consuming content, and the second a tool for overlaying information such as text messages and maps in front of a viewer. The other device, N421, a lightweight pair of glasses using AR only, is more complex.
There are many products in the market such as Oculus and Valve Index that tackle VR very well, specially when tethered to a powerful computer, however, there are no good products for AR, as it has been imagined by people. A product which can be like normal-wear glasses, but also overlays useful information and apps in front of the wearer's eyes. Google tried this with Glasses, but it never took off.
Similar to how current virtual reality headsets work, earlier N301 prototypes also relied on powerful external hardware, which would drive the graphics experience. It is simply not possible to put such powerful hardware in a headset with current technology. TDG opted for a hub, which would be like a small Mac, and would connect to the headset wirelessly.
N301 was initially designed to be an ultra-powerful system, with graphics and processing speeds previously unheard of for a wearable product. The processing capabilities were so advanced—and produced so much heat—that the technology couldn’t be crammed into a sleek headset. Instead, Rockwell’s team planned to sell a stationary hub, which in prototype form resembled a small Mac, that would connect to the headset with a wireless signal. In Rockwell’s early version, the headset would also be able to operate in a less-powerful independent mode.
However, Jony Ive hated this implementation. He suggested that Rockwell's team work on N301 without a separate processing hub. This would render the headset less capable than before, but it would still be an advanced piece of hardware. Tim Cook also sided with Jony Ive on this, and the headset was reworked according to this vision.
The current version of the headset in development at Apple features ultra-high-resolution screens, and a cinematic speaker system. It looks like a small version of an Oculus Quest. Of course, graphics will take a hit due to weaker hardware, but for a content consumption device, it will provide the best experience without reliance on any external hardware. The technology for the wireless powerful hub was also re-used for ARM processors that will be later use in Macs.
Jony Ive was more fond of the N421 AR glasses, as they will keep the user in the real world, unlike the VR headset, which will take users into the virtual world.
N301 will ship with its own App Store, and support games, streaming video services and virtual meetings apps. Both N301 and N421 will also be controlled by Siri, however, Apple is also testing a physical remote for N301.
For now, Apple is undecided on the price of the new headset. Rockwell expects the headset to start shipping in 2022, while AR glasses will ship in 2023, if all goes as per plan.
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