What We Know About Apple’s Reported Plans for an AR/VR Headset

It wouldn’t debut until 2020, so there’s still time for the idea to change or fall apart.

A VR headset with an Apple logo.
One day? Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Apple is working on an augmented reality headset. This we’ve “known” from a handful of reports over the past few months, perhaps most notably from Bloomberg, which revealed that the company was readying the technology for a 2019 debut. These reports always come with some degree of uncertainty, but in recent years, such leaks have often proved accurate. Outside this brief glimpse at Apple’s purported timeline for the project, we’ve had little insight into how Apple would tackle this project: just a patent illustrating how Apple might approach a headset and the features offered in Apple’s ARKit, its augmented reality resource kit for developers. On Friday, however, CNET published a detailed report on the company’s plans, which look more ambitious than previously imagined.

Apple reportedly isn’t just working on an AR headset—it’s planning for one that will double as a VR headset as well. “The company is working on a headset capable of running both AR and VR technology, according to a person familiar with Apple’s plans,” CNET’s Shara Tibken wrote. “Plans so far call for an 8K display for each eye—higher resolution than today’s best TVs—that would be untethered from a computer or smartphone.” The headset would wirelessly connect to a dedicated processing box, and the box would be outfitted with a powerful, Apple-designed 5-nanometer chip. The headset will also reportedly include technology that detects your positioning in a room, so there’s no need for secondary sensors to be set up as with other VR headsets like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. Much of this technology is required for the VR aspect of the equation, but in order to handle augmented reality—which seeds virtual graphics into your real-world environment—the device would also need to offer some sort of pass-through video from an onboard camera.

The project is currently slated for completion in 2020, according to the report, provided plans don’t change or get abandoned before then.

Before Friday, we knew Apple had interest in the burgeoning AR space. Apple CEO Tim Cook has spoken about the prospect and promise of AR on numerous occasions—onstage at keynotes, in interviews, and during financial earnings calls. In 2016, Cook said that while he expects adoption to take some time, it will eventually become as important as “eating three meals a day.” Last year, Apple debuted the iPhone X, which made AR a key feature. On its front, the iPhone X includes a “TrueDepth camera” capable of projecting a map of 30,000 infrared dots onto your face as a form of biometric authentication (as well as less-serious endeavors like animating the poop emoji). Apple also debuted ARKit last year, a developer toolkit for enabling augmented reality experiences on iOS. ARKit has spawned a new generation of iOS games and applications, the impact of which we likely won’t see for years.

Its virtual reality ambitions are a surprise, though. As competitors such as Samsung, HTC, and Oculus have pioneered the modern era of virtual gaming hardware over the past few years, Apple remained mum. Now, it appears, Apple may be doing what it’s done with many products in the past: Sit on the sidelines and observe while others fumble before debuting a revolutionary product of its own. From CNET’s report, it’s clear that Apple is working to eliminate some of the pain points of today’s devices, things such as satisfactory processing power, spatial awareness, motion sickness, and the need to be tethered to a computer. And as Apple is still deep in the prototyping phases, it’s unclear how and if Apple’s headset will address one of the last big issues with these devices: their looks.

The reported plans seem in character with Apple’s interests and mode of operation. If Apple finally debuts a dedicated headset in a few years’ time, both technologies will have significantly matured. VR headsets are still in the early adopter phase today, but by 2020 that may not be the case. Until then, we’ll have to watch Apple’s moves more closely and see how its plans change—perhaps its annual developer conference in June will shed more light on what it anticipates from the virtual world.