Apple Board Shown Demos of AR/VR Headset
Bloomberg ran an exclusive story last week describing how Apple executives showed demos of the upcoming AR/VR headset, which has been under development for some time, to the Apple board the previous week. The article says this could be a sign that the Apple XR headset has reached an “advanced stage” of development and may soon be unveiled. The company’s annual developer conference is coming up in under two weeks.
The Apple board consists of eight independent directors along with Apple CEO Tim Cook. The board convenes only four times a year and for the mixed reality to be showcased during such a rare meeting might be an indication that something might be in the offing soon.
The last few weeks have also seen Apple ramping up the development of the rOS or a reality operating system, the operating system that will run on the mixed reality device. The Bloomberg report cites people familiar with the developments and the meeting. The report says that the progress in the development of the rOS, when factored together with the board presentation might suggest that we could see a launch “within the next several months.”
This will be a mixed reality device, with both virtual reality and mixed reality functions and is one of Apple’s biggest bets. It is the company’s first foray into a new product category since 2015 when it launched the Apple Watch and could catapult Apple into market leadership in a still nascent industry that is currently dominated by Meta Platforms and its standalone VR headset, Meta Quest 2. Apple is exploring new ways of expanding its devices business which currently accounts for roughly 80% of the company’s annual sales according to the Bloomberg report.
Apple is reportedly targeting a launch date for the device as early as the end of 2022 or at some point in 2023. A consumer release of the headset is planned for 2023. The company initially targeted an introduction at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference taking place in June but that was reportedly shelved aside following challenges associated with the content and overheating which have occasioned the delays, according to the report.
Apple has seen soaring sales recently which hit new peaks in recent quarters but, like other players in the industry, it has been plagued with supply-chain issues along and concerns about consumer spending which have dampened its stocks. This year, the company’s shares plunged 23%. Part of the slump is due to a broader slump in the tech industry.
Apple’s board is usually the first, outside its regular staff, to get a glimpse of the company’s future products. The Siri voice assistant, for instance, was shown to the Apple board just weeks before it was publicly introduced.
The Apple headset is codenamed N301 and has advanced processors which are reportedly at par with those inside the latest Macs. The headset also features ultra-high-resolution screens.
The first model of the Apple headset will be a mixed reality device with both virtual reality and augmented reality functions. However, Apple is also developing standalone AR glasses that are scheduled for release a few years from now and which are codenamed N421.
Apple’s current mixed reality headset which was showcased to the board last week and is codenamed N301 has been under development since 2015. The development project is spearheaded by Apple vice president Mike Rockwell and overseen by Dan Riccio who was formerly in charge of hardware engineering at Apple. The Bloomberg report says that there are approximately 2,000 Apple employees working on the device as part of a team called Technology Development Group (TDG).
Many of the staff in TDG are drawn from top software and hardware leads at iPhone, iPad, and Mac. The company has also made some key hires from NASA as well as from a spectrum of industries spanning graphics, audio, and gaming. However, the report says some of the division’s key engineers have been snapped by Meta and other major tech players in recent months.
The team works from Apple’s Sunnyvale, CA offices, not far from the company’s Cupertino headquarters. The device has grappled with a number of challenges in the course of its development including challenges with compelling content and applications. There have also been technical hurdles such as overheating and the refinement of its onboard cameras.
Apple has been developing the AR versions of its core iPhone apps for the mixed reality headset and for the new apps that will perform tasks like holding virtual meetings and streaming immersive content.
Apple initially planned to unveil the AR headset in 2019 and release it in 2020. Another unveiling date was scheduled for 2021 with a target release date of 2022 and this, too, was postponed following the aforementioned technical challenges. The new unveiling and release date are now set for 2022 or 2023.
The development of the headset also saw pushback from Apple’s former designer Jony Ive but he left the company in 2019. He was opposed to the project on the grounds that a headset should not take users out of the real world and vouched for AR-only glasses. Ive had also rejected a plan for a headset with both a standalone mode as well as an option for making the device extra-powerful when it is wirelessly paired to a processing hub inside the home. That plan was also shelved aside and Apple’s current plan is a standalone device only. The mixed reality headset is also powered by a more powerful version of the M1 chip that is used in Apple’s latest laptops.
Apple’s AR software was tested on HTC Vive virtual reality headsets during the nascent development stages of its mixed reality headset. Apple’s development group built a scaled-down headset with an iPhone display, chipsets, and cameras. However, this device was only designed for testing purposes and Apple had no plans to sell it.
If the Apple headset eventually hits the market, it will face off against top competitors including Sony, Google, Meta, and Microsoft.
Meta is also set to launch a mixed reality headset at some point this year which will be a direct competitor to the Apple device. Codenamed Project Cambria, it will cost over $800. The Apple device will be considerably expensive, costing more than $2,000 according to Bloomberg.