Last month's rumors that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) may have its highly anticipated augmented reality (AR) headset ready to ship next year did seem a little questionable, considering how daunting a task Apple faces in creating an AR ecosystem. Instead, the AR headset might not launch until 2022, which could be followed by a slimmer set of AR glasses the year after that.
Investors are just going to have to be patient for Apple's next foray into a new product category.
A tale of two AR products in the pipeline
The Information reports that Apple recently had an internal presentation that detailed its AR ambitions to an estimated 1,000 employees. AR chief Mike Rockwell, a former Dolby exec that Apple hired in 2015, explained to workers how the device would function.
The headset is code-named N301 and will be capable of delivering both AR and virtual reality (VR) experiences, and will look like Facebook's Oculus Quest VR headset, according to the report. The Quest completely obscures the user's eyes, but Apple's headset may have cameras that still allow the user to see the outside world. That sounds similar to the transparency mode found on the new AirPods Pro and Solo Pro, which pass through audio using external microphones, but with video.
CEO Tim Cook has said that he considers VR to be a socially isolating experience, which is one reason why he thinks AR has more broad-based potential.
"I'm excited about Augmented Reality because unlike Virtual Reality which closes the world out, AR allows individuals to be present in the world but hopefully allows an improvement on what's happening presently," Cook said in early 2017. "Most people don't want to lock themselves out from the world for a long period of time and today you can't do that because you get sick from it."
The AR headset is expected to feature a high-resolution display while being able to create detailed 3D environmental maps. It's unclear whether Apple is leveraging all of the 3D sensing work it has been doing in recent years, which underpins the company's Face ID technology. Apple is reportedly planning to get its army of third-party developers to start creating apps and content for the hardware around 2021.
The AR glasses, on the other hand, will take longer to develop. Code-named N421, Apple wants users to wear them on a daily basis, which means it still needs to do more miniaturization work, as the current prototype has fairly thick frames, according to the report. Amazon.com recently introduced wearable Echo Frames, which are mostly a way to provide access to Alexa and have no AR features. Apple's glasses may include special lenses that become darker when the user is using AR functions as a way to signal to other people that AR is in use.
It's somewhat peculiar that Apple, famous for its secrecy as well as its willingness to prosecute leakers, would share the information with so many employees, virtually guaranteeing that details would escape the walls of Apple Park. While it's an open secret that Apple is working on an AR headset, specific details are highly sensitive, competitively speaking.
We might have to wait a little bit longer to see what the Mac maker has in the pipeline.