Apple boss Tim Cook is a big fan of augmented reality (AR). In fact, he has publicly praised the technology since at least the summer of 2016, when he said on an earnings call how Apple sees great opportunity for the tech.
The company chose not to engage with AR's sibling, virtual reality (VR). So while Samsung, Google, Facebook (via its Oculus purchase) and others all fought to take VR mainstream, Apple saw those clunky headsets, occasionally made of cardboard, and sat it out.
In the meantime, as those companies created waves at first but later struggled to keep developers and consumers interested, Apple — and Cook personally — continued to beat the AR drum.
The message was, this is the future technology worth fighting for in the end. The runaway success of Pokémon Go, a mobile game with AR components, only helped bolster that position. At around the same time, Apple gave its developers ARKit, a software development platform to help them produce augmented reality apps for iPhones and iPads.
Cook's AR evangelism continues
Although Cook's passion for AR has bubbled away for the past few years, it was in late-2017 that he began to talk even more bullishly about the technology. Speaking in October that year, Cook suggested that the adoption of AR, although slow at first, will eventually be as dramatic as that of the iOS AppStore and even of multi-touch.
"Thinking back to 2008, when the App Store went live, there was the initial round of apps and people looked at them and said, 'This is not anything, mobile apps are not going to take off,' he said then. "And then step by step things start to move."
Cook added: "And it is sort of a curve, it was just exponential — and now you couldn't imagine your life without apps. Your health is on an app, your financials, your shopping, your news, your entertainment — it's everything. AR is like that. It will be that dramatic."
Then, in the second half of 2019, things really began to accelerate for Cook and Apple's love affair with AR. First came a report that Apple has cancelled its augmented reality smart glasses, but this was quickly debunked two months later when code referring to augmented reality was spotted in iOS 13, Apple's latest iPhone and iPad software.
Apple's AR project
Discovered in an internal build of iOS 13 not intended to leave Apple HQ, references to an app called STARTester were discovered. What was interesting here is how the app can, according to the leaked internal iOS 13 build, be switched in and out of head-mounted mode, suggesting it could run on a headset of some kind.
Further evidence was found in a README file, also within the build of iOS 13, which described a 'StarBoard' system shell for augmented reality-enabled apps. A device codenamed Garta was also mentioned by the leaked software. Further references to augmented reality (AR) included various 'views' and 'scenes', with references like 'ARStarBoardViewController' and 'ARStarBardSceneManager.'
At this point, it was speculated by analysts that Apple was on track to launch its first AR hardware in 2020, and that device would resemble an improved version of the Google Glass smart glasses.
Then, also in September 2019, it was reported that Apple had acquired a Colorado-based Akonia Holographics, a six-year-old startup that makes glass lenses designed for augmented reality devices.
What iOS 13 revealed
Additional clues for a future Apple AR device arrived in the public version of iOS 13, iPhone's operating system. Steve Troughton-Smith, an iOS developer, discovered further references to StarBoard. "Guess secrecy is out?" the developer tweeted.
Troughton-Smith continued on Twitter: "The GameController framework in iOS 13 also has a gamepad profile for a device meant to be used while using stereo AR apps. The controller profile has a clicky trackpad, a trigger button, and a system (home?) button. Handheld controller for Apple's headset?"
That description sounds similar to the hand controllers used alongside other AR and virtual reality headsets, like the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and Microsoft HoloLens. Further digging into iOS 13 suggested that the AR headset "...has a dashboard of some kind that shows you your available Stereo AR apps (like CarPlay)," Troughton-Smith Tweeted.
Patents give away more details
Next up, a patent filed by Apple on October 24, revealed how the company is looking at a way to find transition lenses to a wearable device, describing a "head-mounted device with an adjustable opacity system." This is similar to Google Glass, where a user interface is projected onto a transparent display on a head-worn device, right in front of the user's eye. But, unlike Glass and more recent smart glasses like the North Focals, Apple's plans are for the opacity of this display to be adjustable.
This would see the use of a photochromic layer on the lens, adjusting how much light passes through and into the wearer's eyes. Like reading glasses with transition lenses, this could help protect the user from bright sunlight, then go clear again once in the shade.
Google Glass kicked off the AR game, but has since shifted to enterpriseGoogle
Most recently, in November 2019, a report from The Information claimed Apple hosted a presentation in October which filled the 1,000-seat Steve Jobs Theater, briefing staff on its augmented reality plans.
These plans include the launch of an AR headset in 2022, followed by a pair of sleeker AR glasses a year later, in 2023. This contradicts the expectations of the often-accurate Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has repeatedly said Apple's first AR device will arrive in 2020. As 2019 draws to a close, we are inclined to believe the 2022-2023 timeline feels more realistic.
The report also claims the headsets will have a comfortable fit, and Apple will start speaking to developers about building software for the AR headset in 2021. Although details are scarce we expect the AR headset to be similar to the Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap, blending the wearer's real environment with a computer-generated interface viewed through a lens or semi-transparent display.
For now, this is as far as Apple's AR story goes, but the device, thanks to leaked software, patents, and Tim Cook's love of the technology, has the potential to be as big of an impact, than the birth of the iPhone and iPad.
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