Report Details Apple’s Uphill Battle in Making a Mixed Reality Headset

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(Photo: Foster + Partners)Over the past year or so there’s been a lot of reports about Apple’s plans to enter the Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) market for the first time. These reports have varied wildly in documenting what Apple’s plans are, and following the latest leaks is enough to give you whiplash. On top of multiple delays, there have also been conflicting reports about its reported design, functionality, and price. A new report by The Information explains why this is the case. It documents Apple’s myriad struggles over a seven year stretch trying to figure out the details of its fledgling headset.

The report is based on conversations with Apple employees who worked on the team or were “close to the project,” which started all the way back in 2015. Although the coverage is paywalled, 9to5mac has provided a summary. It says it all began when employees presented several prototypes to the company’s board in 2016. These early devices were running on Windows or were modified HTC Vive headsets that were “cobbled together.” One of the prototypes was apparently so heavy it requires a “small crane” to hold it up so the user wouldn’t strain their neck. The board members were shown a mix of AR and VR demos. One involved a tiny rhinoceros appearing on a table then growing in size. Another transformed the room from a boring office into a lush forest. Despite the rudimentary nature of the demos, the board gave it the green light for additional funding. An additional motivator for its approval was to counter Facebook’s growing influence, as it had bought Oculus one year prior. With the board, uh, on board, the next step was more challenging; getting CEO Tim Cook’s approval.

Apple headset render via Antonio DeRosa

The report states that products like the iPhone were successful because they had a C-suite executive pushing them along. In the iPhone’s case, that was Steve Jobs. For the company’s headset, they would need Tim to be a staunch advocate, and that didn’t happen. The report states, “While Apple’s current CEO, Tim Cook, supports the headset project, he hasn’t been as active in the effort as Jobs was with the iPhone’s development, according to five people familiar with the project. For example, he rarely visits the group at its offices away from the main Apple campus, those people said. The lack of a honcho of Cook’s stature to champion the headset, code-named N301, has made it harder at times for it to compete with other products such as the Mac and iPhone for head count and engineering resources, the people said.”

Legendary Apple designer Johnny Ive and his team were also not very happy with the headset, which was pitched to them for VR purposes. Apparently, “they believed VR alienated users from other people by cutting them off from the outside world, made users look unfashionable and lacked practical uses.”  We must admit, Johnny does have a point there. Ive’s team also thought it was unlikely anyone would want to wear the headset for an extended period of time. This jives with recent reporting that Apple didn’t want people wearing its headset all-day, dubbing it “not metaverse-friendly.”

The team’s solution to appease Ive was to include outward-facing cameras so the user could see their environment. This essentially transformed it from a VR device into a mixed reality experience. In addition, they put cameras inside the headset that displayed the user’s eyes and face onto an outward-facing display on the headset. This let people see a user’s facial expressions, thus eliminating the alienation aspect of wearing the headset. We must admit, though this is a novel workaround, it sounds incredibly unsettling.

The Information’s report is the first in a series, with the next one expected to cover more recent events. Supposedly it will detail Ive’s team objecting to the use of base stations. Once again, it seems like Ive was sharing common sense feedback as inside out tracking is widely preferable for most users. Apple is rumored to be announcing its headset at this year’s October hardware event, with a launch in 2023.

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