Apple has been working on an augmented reality headset for years. The company hasn’t explicitly confirmed the project, but between hiring AR hardware-specific personnel, filing numerous AR patents, buying AR startups, naming an AR marketing director, and teasing future steps beyond its ARKit software, iGlasses are effectively an “open secret,” just waiting to be unveiled.
Of course, no one knows exactly how and when that will happen. Apple’s black box approach to development means that the specifics are still mysterious, so its iGlasses (or Apple Glasses, or whatever they’re ultimately called) could be nearly ready for production — or a year away. Some of the earliest and best-sourced reports established a late 2019/early 2020 timetable for the rollout.
That suggests that we’re getting close to the official reveal date. It might even come at next week’s WWDC, and I’ve heard whispers that Apple was considering that possibility. As I’ll explain below, however, that would break somewhat with tradition, and it’s best not to get your hopes up for a big reveal right away. Putting the specific timing aside for a moment, here’s how the product is most likely to be introduced.
Expect a preview well ahead of its public release
If you think back to every major Apple “new category” introduction over the past dozen years — iPhone, Apple TV, iPad, Apple Watch, and HomePod — their common thread is a substantial gap between initial announcement and actual in-store availability. Specifically:
- iPhone was announced January 9, 2007 and released on June 29, 2007.
- Apple TV was previewed (as iTV) on September 12, 2006 and released March 21, 2007.
- iPad was announced January 27, 2010 and released on April 3, 2010.
- Apple Watch was revealed on September 9, 2014 and released on April 24, 2015.
- HomePod was introduced June 5, 2017 (WWDC) for a promised December 2017 launch, but ultimately released February 9, 2018.
Apple needs these gaps for several reasons: to win FCC and related regulatory approvals, to finalize manufacturing and marketing plans, and to work out last-minute issues with anything from laggard components to software and distribution channels. Even former Apple CEO Steve Jobs — arguably the strongest proponent of announcements ending with “in stores now” — yielded to these realities for Apple’s first-of-kind product launches, specifically acknowledging the “sneak peek” as a way to avoid leaks that would just happen with regulatory approvals.
For that reason, you can be certain that there will be an official sneak peek of the new AR product months before it hits stores. That gap will also conveniently give everyone plenty of time to make peace with the first model’s sure-to-be-controversial limitations, such as battery life and pricing.
Will the preview happen at WWDC?
One critical question could determine when Apple reveals its AR hardware: Will it be a brand new, standalone computing platform, or just an iPhone accessory?
If the device is a standalone computing platform, akin to Microsoft’s HoloLens or Magic Leap One, Apple will need to share a ton of new information with developers to get them on board early. In theory, there’s no better place to do that than WWDC. If it’s just an iPhone accessory, the reveal could be at any time — WWDC, the inevitable iPhone event in September, or later, depending on how close the hardware is to being finished.
Note from the dates above, however, that Apple generally doesn’t unveil major new products at WWDC; HomePod was an exception. Part of that’s for historic reasons: When Jobs was boss, Apple used to offer regular January keynotes and unpredictably call the media out to one-off events at will. But in the Tim Cook era, there’s been a more predictable cadence for product announcements, placing emphasis on March, June, and September events, with the occasional exception.
In a year when there’s a lot of important OS-level news for iOS, macOS, tvOS, and watchOS, such as cross-platform iOS/macOS development or a new Watch App Store, Apple might be especially unwilling to distract its developers’ attention from those initiatives. Revealing a new AR headset would be a huge distraction.
On the other hand, there’s little question that augmented reality will be a part of the WWDC presentation on the software side — that was pretty much the only new selling point for the just-announced seventh-generation iPod touch. It would also be both a natural and exciting segue for the attendees, as well as the millions of people who watch Apple’s events.
Based on recent reporting, the most likely scenario is that the headset will be an iPhone accessory, akin to the Apple Watch, which means that developers (and Apple) won’t have to do deep dives on a completely new AR-specific platform. There will still be plenty to learn about how the headset works and how developers will be able to add support for it to existing iPhone apps, but third-party support wouldn’t be as critical on day one. That makes a September unveiling, like the Apple Watch, at least as likely as WWDC, if not considerably more so.
What will the preview be like?
If the past is any guide, Apple will want to give the iGlasses a significant spotlight — probably more than the 15 minutes that HomePod received at the end of 2017’s WWDC keynote. The September 2014 Apple Watch preview took 45 minutes, and there’s every reason to think Apple would want that much time to explain and demonstrate new AR hardware, which will arguably be a harder sell than a smartwatch.
When Apple wanted to build excitement for the Watch, it structured the reveal event strategically. Coming an hour into the September event as “One More Thing,” it:
- Started with a memorable design reveal video to get everyone intrigued,
- Continued with Cook wearing an actual Watch onstage as he offered a big picture look at the device’s functionality and “breakthrough” user interface,
- Moved into a Jony Ive video talking about design and features,
- Spent a lot of time on a Kevin Lynch deeper dive software demo,
- Used another video to discuss health and activity features, and
- Ended with a discussion of market size and a general on-sale date (“early 2015”).
You can expect a very similar strategy for Apple’s AR headset. The company will want to show off its design chops — most notably miniaturizing the functionality into something that looks far more like regular glasses than, say, Google Glass or HoloLens — as well as explaining the big reason for the project’s existence and showing off some of the cool things it can do. There will be an on-stage demo of its functionality, accompanied by videos of how it will be useful in a range of daily and specialized situations that just might change the world.
And while there will be a general release timetable, it won’t likely be as narrow as a specific date, and there may not be any discussion of the price. It’s worth mentioning that Apple’s specific dates for sneak peek products have a tendency to slip at least a little (see: Apple TV, HomePod, and AirPower), so it tries to leave the dates ambiguous until it’s very close to actually shipping products.
If I was guessing, the iGlasses reveal will happen later this year, not next week, but anything’s possible. WWDC 2019 is going to be interesting regardless of what’s shown and held back, so tune in for our live coverage from San Jose on Monday.