Apple has been working on a combination of AR and VR wearables for at least the last five years, and it’s this development process that’s been extensively detailed in a new report from Bloomberg. The report covers some of the internal conflicts shaping product design, and provides more details about what form the final devices could take.
Consistent with previous reports, Bloomberg says that Apple’s AR and VR team, lead by Mike Rockwell, has two main products in development. One, reportedly codenamed N421, is a pair of lightweight AR glasses, while a second, codenamed N301, is said to be a headset that will combine the best of both AR and VR. It’s this second device that’s reportedly caused some internal division at Apple.
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, Apple’s former design chief, Jony Ive, reportedly disliked the idea of the N301 headset that needed an external device to run, and saw a less powerful headset as the answer. He also preferred the concept of the N421 glasses overall, because they wouldn’t take people out of the real world as much. Bloomberg reports that Apple CEO Tim Cook eventually sided with Ive’s direction for the hub-less N301 headset after a months-long standoff. Here’s how Bloomberg describes the headset’s current design:
Although the headset now in development is less technologically ambitious than originally intended, it’s pretty advanced. It’s designed to feature ultra-high-resolution screens that will make it almost impossible for a user to differentiate the virtual world from the real one. A cinematic speaker system will make the experience even more realistic, people who have used prototypes say.
Here are a few key takeaways from Bloomberg’s report, some of which has been reported before:
Prototype N301 headsets reportedly have a similar design to Facebook’s Oculus Quest, including having a “mostly fabric body.” The N301 headset will reportedly have its own App Store, which will include games, video streaming software, and applications for virtual meetings. Apple plans to allow its Siri voice assistant to control both the headset and the glasses, but it’s also testing a physical remote for the headset. Rockwell’s team is reportedly now 1,000-strong, and has a degree of independence from the rest of Apple. Bloomberg reiterates that we may see the first headset announced in 2021 with a 2022 release, and that the glasses are unlikely to be ready for release until 2023 at the earliest.
Bloomberg’s piece is a fascinating look at how Apple’s AR and VR ambitions have developed over the years, and it’s well worth reading in its entirety.