Reports are coming in that Apple is preparing to tackle virtual reality and augmented reality with its own headset hardware. But will its product come too late to gain a foothold in the market?
Is Apple finally getting into the VR and AR hardware game? The house that Jobs and Wozniak built has been one of the few major tech companies conspicuously absent from the virtual and augmented reality conversation. Last year, Apple released ARKit, an SDK for developing AR content for the iPhone and iPad. But what everyone has been anticipating is a hardware announcement.
While major competitors like Google, Microsoft, and Samsung have already spent years going after VR/AR hardware—both for consumer and enterprise—Apple has stayed quiet on its ambitions. Last week, reports began to surface that Apple was, in fact, working on a heads-up display—one that would be a hybrid offering both VR and AR functionality.
A patent for an eye tracking system, published in April 2018, is only the latest of a series of patents Apple has applied for around a potential VR or AR headset. (Image source: USPTO)
According to anonymous sources from Apple interviewed by CNET, Apple is currently working on a headset—codenamed T288—with a planned 2020 release date. It is aiming to offer many of the features promised by next-generation VR and AR headsets as well as surpass them.
According to the CNET report, current specs on the headset reveal a planned standalone unit with 8K resolution per eye, inside-out tracking, and eye-tracking capabilities. In essence, if the reports are true, Apple is developing an all-in-one headset that won't need external trackers and won't even need a controller—all while delivering image quality that surpasses the best TVs currently on the market.
The headset's processing would happen via a dedicated box, resembling a PC tower, that connects to the headset via a short-range wireless technology called 60 Ghz WiGig. Version 2.0 of WiGig is scheduled to arrive in 2019. It purports to deliver the speed and range needed for high-end VR applications.
All of this will be powered by a proprietary 5-nanometer processor created by Apple. That's right, the iPhone maker is getting into the chip market as well. According to a report from Bloomberg, Apple is planning to end its long-standing deal with chipmaker Intel as soon as 2020 in favor of supplying its own chip hardware.
While no specific details of the chip hardware have been publicly released, anonymous sources speaking to Bloomberg said the goal is part of a larger initiative to create a more seamless integration and workflow across all Apple devices including Mac, iPhones, and iPads. Apple is not wholly new at creating processors; the latest iPhone model features the company's own A11 Bionic chip that is optimized for delivering AR content on mobile devices.
Documents from the US Patent and Trademark Office suggest Apple has been developing components for a high-end VR or AR headset for at least several years. In April 2010, a patent was published for a head-mounted display that can be integrated with a portable electronic device, such as an iPhone, much in the same manner as Samsung's Gear VR uses Samsung Galaxy smartphones for its display.
In March of this year, another patent from Apple was published detailing a “Predictive Foveated Virtual Reality System” that allows images to be rendered based on where a user is looking. This process mimics how the human eye functions, creating the most focus and detail where the eye is focusing, and blurring details in the periphery. As recently as April 26, yet another Apple patent was published—this time for an eye-tracking system that places near-infrared cameras and mirrors into a head-mounted display to track the wearer's eye moments.
Given the timing of both the planned chip rollout as well as the VR/AR headset, it would seem Apple is looking to make bold strides into the computer hardware market and take even more control over its notoriously closed off devices from the inside out. If Apple's new chip is powerful enough to deliver on the demands of its planned headset as well as allow better integration with other Apple devices, the company could create a powerful hardware ecosystem for VR/AR consumers and developers. Perhaps the world of VR and AR apps will end up being split along similar lines as smartphone apps, which can essentially be divided into iOS vs. Android.
The only other major tech company to employ a similar strategy would be Microsoft, which has made a number of third-party deals around building an ecosystem around mixed reality.
The site AppleInsider is also reporting that Apple is working on a new iOS-based platform for its headset, dubbed “reality operating system” (rOS). It will run on the headset similar to how Apple's watchOS runs on the Apple Watch.
Of course, a final product is hardly ever what ends up on store shelves and in offices. Over on Gizmodo, staff reporter Rhett Jones has expressed a healthy and valid amount of skepticism over Apple's ability to deliver the product with the performance suggested in reports at a reasonable price point:
“If it’s primarily a VR device, it’ll be niche as hell. Microsoft’s Hololens dev kits go for $3,000. This thing is supposed to do VR and AR, and it’s by Apple! $$$$$. So, it would seem reasonable to assume, if this rumor is true, that Apple wants to make a definitive all-in-one device that would handle state-of-the-art VR and be a productivity machine, too. Microsoft has been chipping away at Apple’s stranglehold on the prosumer section of the creative market. The iMac Pro and overhauled Mac Pro are intended to grab back some of those losses. And it’s easy to imagine the 'T288' as Apple’s attempt to plant its flag as the destination for content creators in the AR and VR fields.”
If Apple has its way, no doubt the mysterious T288 will have the same impact on VR/AR that the iPhone has had on phones. But with new iterations of headsets like the HTV Vive Pro already on the market , and with all the major players promising next-generation headsets soon, Apple will have to do a pretty big leap frog to jump ahead of the pack. With no real presence in VR/AR to speak of (outside of ARKit), if Apple is going to wait another two years, it may find itself too far behind the already crowded space unless it comes up with something truly revolutionary.