It’s no surprise at this point that Apple is actively working on augmented reality glasses. A secretive project has been underway for years under the management of former Dolby executive Mike Rockwell, and Apple has broadly hinted that its AR ambitions extend beyond the iPhone’s and iPad’s ARKit software.
While Apple’s acquisition of Akonia Holographics apparently took place months ago, the news just became public, and it’s an extremely important data point in understanding AR’s trajectory. After peeking at Akonia’s patent portfolio, it’s clear that the company is best known for developing holographic storage solutions — technology interestingly licensed to Nintendo and others — but its more recent work is in creating wearable “HoloMirror” optics.
If you’re not familiar with how AR works, think of these optics as super-thin displays nestled inside otherwise transparent lenses — an overlay that lets you see the real world augmented with “holographic,” computer-generated visuals. Akonia’s technology specifically promises “dramatically higher performance” than prior solutions across five key metrics:
- full color (RGB)
- high field-of-view (FOV), and
- production cost
If you’ve been following our reporting on AR solutions such as the Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap One, you’ll instantly understand why improvements on these factors are critically important. Current AR headsets are super-expensive, suffer from short battery life despite large sizes, and produce ghostly images inside small windows within your overall field of vision. AR won’t have a prayer of taking off until there’s a reasonably priced, power-efficient solution that produces colorful, natural-looking, and immersive imagery. That’s exactly what Akonia is claiming HoloMirror delivers.
With two-thirds of 2018 now in the rearview mirror, it’s clear that AR needs an Apple-caliber shot in the arm. Looking past the extremely limited enterprise adoption of the $3,000 to $5,000 HoloLens, there’s very little evidence of consumer interest in the self-contained AR headset, and even Microsoft speaks of it as merely a step along the path to a consumer product. More recently, Magic Leap failed to wow people with its long-awaited unveil of a slightly better but much larger $2,295 alternative. Other AR devices have proved useful only for specific industrial applications — no one’s going to wear them out in public, and they’re most likely not leaving the owner’s office or home.
Apple’s end goal with AR is to produce a wearable that looks basically indistinguishable from a standard pair of glasses, and can be used anywhere. The company’s designers are not interested in Google-like efforts to make people look like cyborgs, or Oakley-style glasses with electronic enclosures dangling from the temples. Don’t expect Tony Stark’s wire-rimmed glasses in Avengers: Infinity War — thick rims will be a necessity — but Akonia’s slim technology suggests that the lenses will be slender, yet powerful.
It’s a safe bet that Apple will offload most of the actual computing into a separate device — an iPhone or Apple Watch, connected wirelessly — instead of trying to cram everything inside like the HoloLens. But in addition to the Akonia-developed displays, the glasses will need to house camera, tracking, high-bandwidth wireless, and battery components; micro speakers for audio cues; and a controller chip.
My guess is that the challenges involved in making these parts implausibly small is the single biggest reason the AR headset isn’t already being shown — an earlier Bloomberg report pegged 2019 finalization and 2020 ship dates for the project. In the meanwhile, Apple is getting its development community accustomed to producing AR apps that can be viewed using iPhone and iPad screens, which will make it fairly easy to create versions compatible with wearable displays.
The Akonia deal should place rival AR companies on notice: Apple’s taking concrete steps to control a key display technology behind what it has identified as a future core business. Everyone else has a couple of years to find ways to make their platforms more compelling — and publicly usable — before the trillion-dollar juggernaut shows the world what it’s been working on.