Inside Apple’s secretive headset plans

Just months before Rockwell joined, the company set out to build an electric car to rival those of Tesla. Apple hired several hundred engineers and reassigned even more internal staff. But by the end of 2016, it had started laying off people, largely abandoning development of a full vehicle in favour of underlying self-driving technology. Inside the company, the project was deemed a disaster.

Rockwell’s team is still in good standing and, although it collaborates with the rest of Apple, insiders see it as enjoying an unusual degree of independence. Based mostly in a Sunnyvale, California, office park about a 15-minute drive from headquarters, the TDG has its own hardware, software, operations, and content groups – staffed by some of the company’s hottest talent.

As for the impasse between Rockwell and Ive, chief executive officer Tim Cook ultimately sided with the design chief. 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. (The technology in the hub didn’t go entirely to waste: Some is being recycled to build the powerful processors Apple plans for its Macs, replacing components made by Intel.)

Still, dispensing with the hub means graphics won’t be as good as they might have been and the download speeds could be slower. It will also probably make the experience less lifelike than originally hoped.

For Ive, who left last year after almost three decades at the company, a more realistic experience was potentially problematic: He didn’t want Apple promoting technology that would take people out of the real world. According to people familiar with the matter, he preferred the concept of the N421 glasses, which would keep users grounded in reality while beaming maps and messages into their field of vision.

Jony Ive, Apple’s design chief until last year, advised the headset team to alter their design.  Bloomberg

Prototypes of N301 look like a smaller Oculus Quest, Facebook’s VR headset, with a mostly fabric body but less plastic than the Quest. Apple’s engineering teams are still testing the device on different head shapes to find the ideal fit. The company hasn’t settled on pricing. By way of comparison, the Oculus Quest retails for $US399, and Microsoft’s enterprise-focused Hololens 2 mixed-reality headset and Magic Leap AR goggles sell for $US3500 and $US2295, respectively.

N301 would have its own App Store, with a focus on gaming, and the ability to stream video content, while also serving as a sort of super-high-tech communications device for virtual meetings. Siri, Apple’s voice assistant, will control both the headset and the eventual glasses, though the headset is also being tested with a physical remote. Apple has reassigned some engineers who were working on Siri’s interface to Rockwell’s team.

The division has recently lost a few key players. Peter Meier, who joined Apple in 2015 from German AR startup Metaio, left last year. Former DreamWorks Animation executive Ian Richter switched to another area of Apple in October after almost two years on the job. Cody White, who helped develop Apple’s RealityKit software, which allows developers to implement 3D rendering in augmented-reality apps for the iPhone and iPad, quit in December.

Rockwell, whose team also contributes to the kit, continues to push forward. Apple is slated to announce new tools for iPhone AR apps at its annual developer conference this month. The actual hardware will take longer. Although plans could change, in an all-hands meeting in the third quarter of last year, Rockwell said the first headset may be announced in 2021 and released in 2022. Apple fans can expect the AR glasses by 2023 at the earliest.

Bloomberg Businessweek

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