There have been multiple rumours that Apple is developing an augmented reality (AR) device, going back well over two years. And things heated up in June, when the announcement of ARKit at WWDC 2017 made it clear that Apple is deeply interested in this area. And no surprise: with Google and Microsoft developing AR devices, it seems like a party Apple can't afford to miss.
Is Apple making a pair of AR glasses? And what would it look like? In this feature, we look at all the latest Apple AR rumours, patents and possible release date rumours.
What is Augmented Reality?
First, a quick refresher on terms as many get AR and VR confused. VR headsets are mounted on the head in a similar way to Ski goggles, and completely block your view of the outside world. The VR headset tracks your head movement, and the 3D image displayed inside the headset moves accordingly. This makes it appear as if you're wholly inside a 3D 'virtual' world.
Augmented reality, on the other hand, is where the glasses are see-through and you can still see the world around you, but an image is displayed in front of your eyes.
AR also hit the headlines in recent years, first thanks to Google Glass (which displays 2D images) and more recently with an upcoming headset developed by Microsoft called Hololens that embeds 3D images in the world around you.
Apple is known to be a trailblazer, but it's still part of the Silicon Valley tech industry (albeit a more secretive one). If Google and Microsoft are all working on AR solutions, you can bet your bottom dollar that Apple also has a prototype in its labs.
Is Apple working on AR glasses?
According to a rumour first picked up by Bloomberg, Apple's next project will be a Google Glass-style pair of augmented reality glasses and not a VR headset as originally believed. According to the news outlet, Apple has even gone as far as to discuss the project with its hardware suppliers, and even order a small number of "near-eye displays" for internal testing displays.
If Apple's internal testing goes well and it moves on from the early stages of development, Bloomberg's sources claim that the glasses will wirelessly connect to an iPhone and will display not only information but images and other data directly in front of the wearer's field of view.
It's said that the glasses won't be made available until at least 2018, if ever, as Apple is notoriously secretive about its product development and the project could be canned at any moment.
More evidence of some sort of AR project comes from leaked Apple employee injury reports obtained by Gizmodo. While they're mostly about mundane workplace injuries like cafeteria burns, there are two that stand out.
One involved someone testing an unknown prototype device who "experienced discomfort in her eye and said she was able to see the laser flash at several points during the study." She was later referred to an optometrist.
Another involved an employee who "reported eye pain after working with new prototype, thought it may be associated with use".
While these could reflect either an AR or VR device, an internal source told Gizmodo that the injuries were likely linked to an AR prototype Apple is working on, speculating that it could be "something like glasses with an overhead display".
This suggests that Apple is gearing up for its next big product in the AR/VR industry: Apple Glasses.
Tim Cook: AR 'a big idea like the smartphone'
Apple CEO Tim Cook is a fan of AR. He said in an August 2016 interview with The Washington Post that Apple is "doing a lot of things" in the augmented reality space, contrary to the popular belief that Apple was working on a virtual reality headset. He didn't stop there though, as the Apple boss went on to claim that he thinks of it as a "core technology" for the fruit company.
"I think AR is extremely interesting and sort of a core technology" Cook stated during the interview. "So yes, it's something we're doing a lot of things on behind that curtain we talked about."
Following on from these comments, Cook took part in a rare interview session at Sen. Orrin Hatch's Utah Tech Tour in Salt Lake City in October 2016 where he again discussed augmented reality, although this time he gave us a better idea on what Apple may be working on.
"AR I think is going to become really big," said Cook. "VR, I think, is not gonna be that big, compared to AR … How long will it take? AR gonna take a little while, because there's some really hard technology challenges there. But it will happen. It will happen in a big way. And we will wonder, when it does [happen], how we lived without it. Kind of how we wonder how we lived without our [smartphones] today."
It's interesting that Apple is focusing more on augmented reality than virtual reality, although it does make sense - especially with the booming popularity of apps that feature the technology like Pokemon Go, and the introduction of ARKit in iOS 11 which makes it much easier for developers to offer AR capabilities in their apps.
Cook sees it as becoming something that a huge part of the population will use on a daily basis, going on to state that he thinks "that a significant part of the population, of developed companies, and eventually all countries, will have AR experiences every day".
Speaking to The Independent during a trip to the UK, Cook said that he prefers AR over VR because it "allows individuals to be present in the world but hopefully allows an improvement on what's happening presently."
Considering that VR seems to provide the more immersive and enjoyable experience of the two platforms at the moment, why does Cook believe that AR is the future? People don't want to be cut off from the world, apparently.
"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," he said, discussing virtual reality. "With AR you can, not be engrossed in something, but have it be a part of your world, of your conversation. That has resonance."
Cook even went as far as to liken it to the smartphone, and how that has changed the world. "I regard it as a big idea like the smartphone" he claimed. "The smartphone is for everyone, we don't have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: it's for everyone. I think AR is that big, it's huge."
Most recently, Tim Cook addressed AR and ARKit during the Q3 2017 earnings call. When asked a question about how people will be using ARKit, Cook replied "I could not be more excited about AR and what we’re seeing with ARKit in the early going." He continued to explain the variety of ways he has already seen AR used, and that he thinks "AR is big and profound and this is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it."
Assuming Apple is working on an augmented reality project, what is still unclear is the form in which it'll be presented: via our iPhones, or via a standalone wearable. While AR glasses patents have surfaced in the past, a new Bloomberg report claims that it'll actually be introduced on the iPhone first, with glasses coming later down the line.
The report claims that there are "hundreds of engineers devoted to the cause" including a number of people from Apple's iPhone camera team working on AR-related features for the iPhone.
The Bloomberg report is supported by a claim from a Business Insider source that Apple has teams from several acquired startups working on iPhone AR, and this reflects Apple's short-term desire to put AR into the hands of consumers.
Sure, the AR glasses are coming, but integrating it into a smartphone that millions of people already have will introduce them to the concept of AR, and may make them more likely to buy the glasses once they go on sale.
The source also claims that Apple has hired an expert in head-mounted displays (HMDs), and that this showcases Apple's long-term AR/glasses initiative. Apple adding AR capabilities to the iPhone allows consumers to point the phone at a real-world object, like a statue or a car, and be offered contextual information overlaid onto the real world.
It seems as if the above Bloomberg report is correct, as Apple announced ARKit as part of iOS 11 at WWDC 2017 in June. ARKit allows developers to offer high-end augmented reality capabilities in their apps without having to develop the AR system, and improves existing AR solutions too - Pokemon GO running ARKit looks much smoother than it does at present.
Per Apple's ARKit page on its website, it claims that ARKit is a "cutting-edge platform for developing augmented reality apps for iPhone and iPad" and it offers "powerful capabilities for positional tracking and scene understanding".
It makes sense for Apple to offer AR as part of the iPhone and iPad experience, as it's a device already in the hands of millions of consumers. It also encourages developers to create AR apps that could in future be ported to an AR headset, if that's the route that Apple decides to go down.
Plus, it'll make iOS the biggest AR platform in the world on day one. Not too bad for emerging technology!
Analyst claims AR is a perfect partnership for Apple
KGI analyst and all-round Apple psychic Ming-Chi Kuo has told investors that he believes that Apple's track record of delivering innovative and high-quality user experiences will help the company move into - and succeed - in the AR market. Citing how the iPod paved the way for the iPhone, Kuo suggests that the iPhone could provide the building blocks for a full-blown AR solution - although he didn't provide details on what it might look like.
Generally, Kuo believes that Apple could integrate AR to redefine key product lines; an AR-powered interface could change the way that users interact with small-screen devices like the Apple Watch, eliminating issues with clunky controls.
Carry on reading to find out more about AR-related Apple patents and possible release date rumours.