Now that ARKit has arrived, the starting pistol on Apple's AR exploits has been fired. Not one to let Snapchat have all the fun, Apple is said to be exploring the smartglasses market in a serious way, with reports that it is involved with Carl Zeiss, putting together a team consisting of veterans from Oculus, Microsoft's HoloLens project, Dolby, Hollywood special effects studio Weta Digital and more.
So what do we know right now? One of the more recent reports comes from Bloomberg and claims that Apple's AR team is run by former Dolby hardware head Mike Rowell, who also advised Meta, a small AR glasses company. He leads a group that includes engineers and executives from Oculus, Microsoft's HoloLens team, THX, Meta, Amazon's Lumberyard VR platform, Google Earth and, perhaps unexpectedly, Weta Digital, the Hollywood special effects studio behind movies like Lord Of The Rings, King Kong and Avatar.
Apple has filled out the AR team with its own iPhone, camera and optical lens engineers. Also, earlier this year Robert Scoble said an anonymous Carl Zeiss employee told him that Apple was working with Carl Zeiss AG "on a light pair of augmented reality/mixed reality glasses that may be announced this year".
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That word "light" is promising and suggests a glasses form factor – like Google Glass – rather than helmet/visor/headset. It also lines up nicely with Apple's obsession with building the thinnest and lightest products possible. But though Scoble said he believes the AR smartglasses could launch this year, Bloomberg reports that the glasses are "further down the road."
In November we reported on word that Apple could launch a mixed reality TV within the next year. And Bloomberg's anonymous sources told it that Apple is looking at a glasses-like device, which may be linked t0 – but probably not the same thing as – said TV.
What we do know for sure is that Apple's AR dreams are first being realised on the iPhone and iPad. At WWDC 2017 the company revealed ARKit, a new toolkit it will be making available to developers in iOS 11. This will provide the kit people need to make AR games and experiences on Apple's devices, and as Apple's Craig Federighi said at WWDC, Apple is building "the largest AR platform in the world."
On stage, Apple showed off a couple of demos, including a game from Peter Jackson's studio Wingnut AR. We also got to try a couple of demos ourselves afterwards, and we suitably impressed with the quality of the AR Apple has accomplished – although how well this will scale as developers come up with bigger and more ambitious ideas remains to be seen.
So why not glasses first? As we said above, it's all about building the platform first. Apple could put out the nicest pair of AR specs we've ever seen tomorrow, but they'd amount to very little without interesting experiences and use cases. We need to get to the point where AR isn't just about having fun, but being genuinely useful, and we reckon that's the game Apple is playing here.
Further down the road
According to Bloomberg, Apple had already been in talks with potential suppliers for components of a glasses-like device late in 2016, and "has ordered small quantities of near-eye displays from one supplier" for testing purposes. We'll assume with Scoble's new info that this is Carl Zeiss. The German optics company has been working on AR digital lens prototypes and its own VR headset line for a few years now.
The device would connect to the iPhone and present images over the wearer's vision – a la Google Glass. It would show images and other information in the wearer's field of vision, and may use augmented reality, the anonymous sources said.
However, despite all the apparent fun and games going on, a leak from alleged Foxconn insiders reveals there could actually be trouble behind the scenes. Chiefly, the employees noted that there's currently a 65% chance 'Project Mirrorshades' is completely scrapped, and that the smartglasses will be delayed until 2018 or potentially 2019 if they do see the light of day.
The Reddit thread also provided much more information on specs than we've previously heard. The glasses will supposedly feature a microphone, accelerometer, magnetometer and a capacitive strip on the arm for volume and call functions. Bone conduction tech would be used for audio, while integration with apps could see head movements control the action. Another interaction method could be Siri, according to some updated Siri patents that included references to Siri as a remote for smartglasses.
Resolution for the glasses is allegedly 428 x 240, with crystal (described as clear), champagne and black designs all being entertained in both men and women's sizes. Rough estimates also placed the price tag for a potential set at around $600.
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Now, it's no secret that Tim C0ok is excited for AR, and the launched of ARKit proves that Apple is serious about this space. As does the fact that Apple purchased a couple of companies, like Metaio and FlyBy Media, that are well-versed in AR software. More recently, Apple bought SensoMotoric Instruments, which specializes in eye tracking. Wouldn't that be helpful for a pair of AR glasses?
That's what makes the scrapping forecast from Foxconn so interesting. This is a project that has always possessed the potential to be delayed due to the leap forward Apple seemingly wants to make in the space, but a lot is already invested for it to be dropped completely. For now, it appears we'll have to wait for the current moving parts to settle.
If we do see the glasses launched – whatever the case with Foxconn, glasses seem like an eventuality anyway – it would be the second major new hardware category launched under Tim Cook, the first being the Apple Watch. The Apple supremo has also gently nudged away speculation that Apple would be going first to VR, saying that he sees more value in augmented reality. Ol' Timmy Cook: all about the wearables.