Report Details Apple MR Headset Design Challenges & Internal Hurdles

Apple is a notorious black box when it comes to internal projects, although sometimes details based on supply chain rumors shed a sliver of light on what might be happening with the company’s AR/VR headset behind closed doors. Much less common coming from Apple are direct internal leaks, however a report from The Information alleges that 10 people on Apple’s mixed reality headset project team have detailed some of the past design challenges and possible direction the headset may take moving forward.

The report (via 9to5Mac) details some anecdotes reaching back as far as 2016, when the company allegedly first showed off a number of AR and VR prototypes to industry leaders and Apple elite.

Former Vice President Al Gore, then–Disney CEO Bob Iger and other Apple board members walked from room to room, trying out prototype augmented and virtual reality devices and software. One of the gadgets made a tiny digital rhinoceros appear on a table in the room. The creature then grew into a life-size version of itself, according to two people familiar with the meeting. In the same demo, the drab surroundings of the room transformed into a lush forest, showing how users could seamlessly transition from AR, in which they can still view the physical world around them, to the more immersive experience of VR—a combination known as mixed reality.

It was more of a conceptual showcase at the time, the report maintains, as some prototypes ran on Windows while others were based on the original HTC Vive. Like the ‘The Sword of Damocles’ built by Ivan Sutherland in the late 60s—the founding father of virtual reality—one such prototype was also supposedly so heavy it was “suspended by a small crane so the Apple board members could wear it without straining their necks.”

None of that’s particularly uncommon practice when it comes to hardware development—just ask Magic Leap insiders from the early days—however the report notes the company’s MR headset hasn’t gained the same support from Apple’s current CEO, Tim Cook, that Steve Jobs had for iPhone’s development. The report says Cook “rarely visits the group at its offices away from the main Apple campus.”

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There’s also allegedly been some political infighting that has stymied development, which we’ve heard in a previous report from 2019 when it was alleged Apple was pumping the breaks on the headset due to discord between then-Apple hardware designer Jony Ive and project lead Mike Rockwell. Ive has since departed the company in 2019 to pursue his own design company, LoveFrom.

Rockwell, Meier and Rothkopf soon encountered pushback from Ive’s team. The three men had initially wanted to build a VR headset, but Ive’s group had concerns about the technology, said three people who worked on the project. They believed VR alienated users from other people by cutting them off from the outside world, made users look unfashionable and lacked practical uses. Apple’s industrial designers were unconvinced that consumers would be willing to wear headsets for long periods of time, two of the people said.

While the teams proposed adding passthrough cameras to the front of the headset, codenamed N301, Apple industrial designers were decidedly more intrigued with a concept for what sources tell The Information was an “outward-facing screen on the headset. The screen could display video images of the eyes and facial expressions of the person wearing the headset to other people in the room.”

The report doesn’t go any further than 2019, however The Information’s Wayne Ma is supposedly publishing a piece soon that covers “pivotal moment for the Apple headset.”

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Like we said, Apple is a black box, which means it doesn’t comment on on-going projects or respond meaningfully to media requests for clarity. Looking back at previously reports however may provide a rough picture of what to expect. The information below is based on reports, so please take it with a grain of salt.

What We (think we) Know About N301 Mixed Reality Headset

  • N301 will be a precursor to a long-rumored, full-fledged AR device which may be named Apple Glass
  • Supply chain rumors suggest it includes MicroOLED displays targeting pixel density of 3,000ppi
  • N301 may pack a dozen cameras for room-scale tracking, hand-tracking, eye-tracking, and passthrough AR
  • “as early as 2023” launch dates for N301 have been reported in the past, however later reports suggest a delay to 2023
  • N301 could cost around $3,000