Apple VR/AR headset patents

Apple patents VR display

Way back in December 2013 an Apple Patent (USPTO 8,605,008) surfaced. This patent described a head-mounted display. The abstract talks about "A goggle system for providing a personal media viewing experience to a user is provided. The goggle system may include an outer cover, a mid-frame, optical components for generating the media display, and a lens on which the generated media displayed is provided to the user."

Three years later, in October 2016, another Apple patent appeared online depicting the same head mounted display as above, albeit a more refined version. The accompanying text also gives us a better idea of how the VR headset would work:

"A head-mounted device that is worn on a user’s head and configured to integrate with a cellular telephone that is removable, the head-mounted device comprising: a frame that is configured to physically receive and carry the cellular telephone, wherein the frame places a display screen of the cellular telephone in front of the user’s eyes; and an optical subassembly configured to receive at least one image frame from the display screen of the cellular telephone, wherein the optical subassembly is interposed between the display screen and the user’s eyes."

It's interesting to note the likeliness between Apple's VR headset and a standard pair of glasses, as most VR headsets resemble a ski mask and block out all vision from the sides of your eyes for a more immersive experience. Of course, it's only a patent and the design is likely to change again before it's released - whenever that may be. 

Months later, in January 2017, Apple was granted another pair of patents that could give us our first proper glimpse at the company's AR aspirations. Patent no. 9,560,273 details the hardware framework of an AR device that can understand its environment thanks to enhanced computer vision capabilities, while patent no. 9,558,581 details the method of overlaying virtual information on a physical environment. 

Both patents were filed back in 2015 by German AR specialist Metaio shortly before Apple acquired the firm, and transferred to Apple in November 2016. Patent 273 describes a "wearable information system having at least one camera" but goes further and discusses the possibilities of having more cameras, a screen, a UI and even internal components dedication to computer vision. The patent details a head-mounted display as the primary platform for AR, but it also suggests that a smartphone (aka the iPhone) could serve as a decent stand-in. 

However, on the whole, the patents deal more with object recognition than it does the visualisation of the AR data. The issue of object recognition is a barrier in the AR industry on the whole, as existing solutions require a large amount of power and thus, aren't ideal for real-world use. In Apple's case, the 'invention' maintains a low-power scanning mode for the majority of its operation, with high-power modes triggered in relatively short bursts.

Then, in May 2017, a patent surfaced depicting the head-mounted display of Apple's upcoming augmented reality headset. The patent details a device and techniques for projecting a source image in a HMD comprised of left and right displays, suggesting that they may look more like standard glasses than Google's failed Glass. 

In the filing, Apple notes that some HMDs can be used to view a transparent image imposed upon a real world view. Sound familiar to augmented reality? We think so too. 

With more advanced patents appearing, it suggests that Apple is taking augmented reality very seriously, and we might be seeing Apple's AR-enabled device on the market sooner than originally thought. 

What will Apple's VR or AR headset look like?

Apple VR Headset design

According to one Apple patent, "the goggle system may resemble ski or motorcycle goggles. To enhance the user's comfort, the goggle system may include breathable components, including for example breathable foam that rests against the user's face, and may allow the user to move the display generation components for alignment with the user's eyes. In some embodiments, the goggle system may include data processing circuitry operative to adjust left and right images generated by the optical components to display 3-D media or account for a user's eyesight limitations"

The patent was filed in May 2007, before the iPhone was even released.

When will Apple release its AR/VR headset?

Assuming that Apple is working on a VR headset, and is going to announce one at some point, when would be a likely time?

HoloLens is available for developers and probably won't get a public release for the foreseeable future, and development on Google Glass has been halted. It's not looking good for the Apple AR/VR headset, right?

Apple traditionally announces devices it can sell in the same year. While until recently we suggested that it wouldn't be until 2018, a rumour suggests that we might get to see Apple's AR headset this year. Robert Scoble discussed the possibility of a 2017 release during a 'This Week in Tech' podcast, claiming that Apple may release a pair of AR glasses as soon as this year.

Scoble carried on to claim that it could be timed to be announced alongside the hotly anticipated iPhone 8 in September 2017. 

However, while Scoble is quick to name a release date window, there's no real proof to go along with the claim, only sources situated "at the highest levels".

On the other hand, a recent (paywall'd) story from the Financial Times claims that even though Apple is "stepping up" its augmented reality efforts and that it's the most important development project within the company, the launch is "still at least a year away, perhaps even longer". 

Citing people with knowledge of the project, the FT claims that Apple began assembling a team of augmented reality experts around a year ago. Fast forward to now and more resources have been devoted to the project than Apple's rumoured driverless car. 

While we hope that Apple's AR glasses will be made available in 2017, we're not holding our breath just yet.