Presented by Antonia de Rosa. Edited by 9to5Mac.
Since beginning its efforts in 2015, Apple’s work on a mixed reality headset has faced a host of challenges that have delayed a potential launch date by years. Now a new report of information shares what the main roadblocks were from internal sources.
The information was able to speak with 10 people close to the Apple Mixed Reality Headset Project, most of whom worked on the team. Back in 2016, just a year after development began, sources say Apple’s board of directors has been given a demo of prototypes to try to “build support at Apple’s highest levels for larger investments.”
Former Vice President Al Gore, then-Disney CEO Bob Iger, and other Apple board members go from room to room, experimenting with prototypes of augmented and virtual reality hardware and software. One gadget made a little digital rhino 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 bleak environment of a room is transformed into a lush jungle, illustrating how users can seamlessly transition from augmented reality, where they can still view the physical world around them, to a more holistic experience of virtual reality – a combination known as mixed reality.
Sources say some prototypes were “packed together” and run Microsoft Windows while others have been modified HTC Vives or other existing headphones. However, one of them was so heavy that it required a “small lever” to carry it “so that Apple board members could wear it without straining their necks.”
While that doesn’t sound like a very impressive experience, Apple’s board of directors was convinced to support more development funding (another factor here was Apple’s concern about Facebook’s advancement in the space).
From now on, the biggest challenges have been technical and one of the factors allegedly playing a role is CEO Tim Cook who is supportive of the business, but not a “champion” and heavily involved in it.
Technical challenges have been the biggest factor in the delay, as has been the case in the past for Apple’s more ambitious new products, such as the iPhone. But the Apple smartphone also had a uniquely influential figure in Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, to interview them.
While Apple’s current CEO, Tim Cook, supports the headphone project, he has not been as active in the effort as Jobs has been in developing the iPhone, according to five people familiar with the project. For example, these people said that he rarely visits the group at its offices away from Apple’s main campus. The people said that Cook’s lack of standing for the headphone championship, codenamed N301, has sometimes made it difficult for it to compete with other products like the Mac and iPhone in staffing and engineering resources.
Another challenge came from Joni Ive. When Headset Team founder and leader Mike Rockwell was working to get support from various Apple teams to help with development, his team was shut down over the idea of making it a VR headset. The Ive team also retracted its “practical uses” and doubted that consumers would want to wear the headphones for any extended period of time.
Soon, Rockwell, Mayer, and Rothkopf encountered opposition from Eve’s team. Three people who worked on the project said that the three men initially wanted to build virtual reality goggles, but that Eve’s group had concerns about the technology. They believed that VR users alienate users from others by isolating them from the outside world, making users look unfashionable and lacking in practical uses. Two people said that Apple’s industrial designers weren’t convinced consumers would be willing to wear headphones for extended periods of time.
It ended up generating the idea of a mixed reality headset:
The guys came up with a solution to address Eve’s team’s concerns. For example, they suggested adding cameras to the front of the headset so that people wearing the device could see their surroundings, the three people said. But the feature that ultimately sold off the project’s industrial designers was the concept of an external display on the headset. The monitor can display video images of the eyes and facial expressions of the person wearing the headset to other people in the room.
These features addressed the Industrial Design Group’s concerns about VR-induced alienation—they allowed other people in the room to interact and collaborate with a person wearing a headset in a way not possible with other VR equipment. For years, the existence of such a display, internally called T429, was known only to a small circle of people even within the Rockwell group.
The information report hints that a follow-up piece will cover a “pivotal moment for the Apple headset” that occurred in 2019. That’s likely when Jony Ive “dropped” on the idea of selling a headset that required the base station hardware to power. That was when the team switched to working on a less powerful but more autonomous AR/VR device.
The latest expectation was that Apple would announce a mixed reality headset in 2023. As far as the price tag, we’ve heard reports that it could sell for over $2,000 to $3,000.
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