Apple’s project to develop augmented reality glasses qualifies as an open secret, as the company has hired AR engineers, filed related patents, and reportedly iterated on the hardware for two or more years. But a new report from the hit-and-miss Taiwanese supply chain publication DigiTimes (via MacRumors) claims that Apple has “terminated AR glasses development,” which if true would be devastating news for the innovation-focused company.
At the moment, the report appears on a paywalled, breaking news section of the DigiTimes site ahead of its formal appearance in Chinese-language publications, so substantiating details are not yet available. But DigiTimes has a track record of providing early information on developments within Apple’s supply chain, some major and some minor, with a mixed but mostly positive record of accuracy.
Well-sourced rumors claimed Apple was working on AR glasses that would run a new operating system, “rOS” — which, like watchOS, would have been based on the smartphone operating system iOS. Early reports suggested the glasses might be standalone or depend on an external computer-like box, but more recently Apple was said to be leaning on the iPhone to handle computing for the headset.
Apple’s reported progress through those options notably coincided with the releases of rival AR headsets, including Microsoft’s all-in-one HoloLens, Magic Leap’s wearable puck-tethered Magic Leap One, and Nreal Light. That particularly lightweight pair (shown above) has its own Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor and relies on a USB-C-connected Qualcomm Snapdragon 855-based smartphone for much of the heavy lifting, an arrangement similar to Apple’s most recently reported plan.
Though AR has seen only limited consumer interest, due as much to sky-high hardware prices as limited applications, Nreal’s $500 Light design appeared set for a market breakthrough this year. But the company was sued last month by Magic Leap, which claims that Nreal’s founder stole enabling concepts and technologies, allowing the startup to offer a comparatively affordable and lightweight option without incurring years of R&D expenses.
Like Nreal, Apple was believed to be working on a design that was all but indistinguishable from conventional glasses. When Apple announced that chief design officer Jony Ive was leaving the company to form his own design firm, LoveFrom, reports suggested Apple’s internal design team was currently working on the AR glasses project as one of its major new initiatives.
Absent dedicated hardware, Apple has been heavily pushing AR software initiatives to developers over the past three Worldwide Developers Conferences, unveiling ARKit, ARKit 2.0, and ARKIt 3.0 in quick succession to expand coders’ access to augmented reality development tools. This week, the company announced the opening of an app design and development assistance office in China, notably beginning with AR-focused educational sessions to bring the country’s software community up to speed on its latest technologies.
Apple does not typically comment on unannounced projects, so there may be no official confirmation or denial of the DigiTimes report. We’ll update this article with more information if and when it becomes available.
Update at 1:20 p.m. Pacific: The full DigiTimes report is now available (translated), including claims from “people familiar with the situation” that Apple’s AR/VR headset team was disbanded in May, and its “original members were transferred to other product developments.” Specifically, the report suggests that the disbanding took place after Microsoft HoloLens co-creator Avi Bar-Zeev left his job leading Apple’s AR headset development team in January.
According to the report, industry speculation is that Apple may have struggled to make the glasses light enough, incorporate 5G networking, or get enough AR content for the glasses. However, DigiTimes offers scant additional details to support its claims, and suggests that the termination could be “temporary,” awaiting maturation of both the technology and content needed to produce the device.