For years Apple has been exploring ways to combine virtual reality and augmented reality into devices that are easy to use and as impactful as the original iPhone was to the mobile industry. A new report from Bloomberg details the company's ambitions, strategy, and how internal philosophical debates have resulted in delays.
A few years into the project, Apple decided on building two separate devices: AR glasses codenamed N421 and a VR headset codenamed N301. The development of these products has been supervised by Mike Rockwell's Technology Development Group, and the VR headset was supposed to work in conjunction with a hub that would provide high graphical fidelity and performance that's hard to miniaturize using current technology. Rockwell wanted the N301 to feature a "cinematic speaker system" and "ultra-high-resolution screens that will make it almost impossible for a user to differentiate the virtual world from the real one."
Former Chief Design Officer Jony Ive didn't like that direction and argued that the device, which reportedly looked similar to an Oculus headset, should have a simpler design with less of a focus on isolating users from real life. Ive wanted Apple to make a smaller, singular device (perhaps similar to Microsoft's Hololens) that would let users be aware of their surroundings, with an AR experience layered on top of that.
Interestingly, Tim Cook sided with Ive on the matter, but the project still proceeded with little changes like settling for less graphical fidelity for the first generation of the N301. Ive left the company and effectively ended his 30-year tenure, while Mike Rockwell's team of over 1,000 engineers continued work on the two devices.
The Bloomberg report also mentions that the work being done on the hub relies on the same ARM platform that is in development for future Macs, as Apple is supposedly planning to gradually transition away from Intel processors in all its devices. The VR headset, which is expected to surface in 2022 at the earliest, is currently in testing to tune the fit and ergonomics, but the biggest question even for Apple executives is about the price point for the new device.
The AR glasses would come a year later, and they're said to resemble high-end sunglasses with "thick frames that house the battery and chips." Ive was supposedly a much bigger fan of that design. Unsurprisingly, they'll also feature strong Siri integration for voice control, but Apple is also exploring a physical remote.
All these efforts are still alive at Apple, which is especially important as companies like Intel and Bose are waving the flag and shuttering their own efforts in augmented reality, and others like Magic Leap struggle to stay afloat.
Masthead credit: Concept by Taeyeon Kim