Surprise! Apple’s AR/VR Headset Will Work Just Like All the Other Ones

Surprise! Apple’s AR/VR Headset Will Work Just Like All the Other Ones
Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images

It’s been a while since the last Apple mixed reality headset rumour, but the latest news hints the device will likely need to wirelessly connect to an iPhone. You know, like every other VR headset or pair of smart glasses that has ever existed.

The news comes via an exclusive Information report, which cites anonymous sources as saying the headset’s processor is ready for trial production. The thing is these SoC aren’t as powerful as the ones you’d find in Apple’s other devices, like the iPhone, iPad, or MacBooks. Those have Apple’s neural engine, enabling features that require artificial intelligence and machine learning.

This indicates that Apple intends the heavy computing to be done on a more powerful device, while the headset acts more like a wireless display. As for why Apple would want its own SoC, the benefit is generally that in-house silicon can be customised to better suit a device’s needs. In this case, the Information claims that Apple’s mixed reality chip is better at wirelessly transmitting data, especially large video files, without completely zapping the battery.

Another interesting tidbit is that the chip is based on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.’s (TSMC) 5nm process tech — which will be outdated by the time the headset comes out. That’s further evidence that Apple intends, like every other AR or VR headset maker, to do the bulk of the heavy computing on a separate device.

The reason for this is simple. Mixed reality requires processing power, and it’s nigh impossible at this point to jam all that into a single headset that’s also comfortable to wear for an extended period of time. Focals by North (RIP) required you to pair it with your phone. Epson’s Moverio smart glasses also require a phone, or some kind of computing device, to work. Magic Leap also connects to a small disc that handles its graphics processing.

The Information report also cited a secondary source as saying that Apple has finished the design for the headset’s image sensor and display driver. It’s described as “unusually large” and similar to the size of one of the headset’s lenses as it has to handle not one, but a rumoured two 8K displays. TSMC is reportedly struggling to produce a satisfactory chip and trying to stuff everything this device would need onto a single SoC for a headset is a tall, tall order. That said, it appears there might be some sort of standalone capability, just at a lower resolution.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that the supposedly $US3,000 ($4,053) headset would need to be tethered in some way. While mixed reality may be the next frontier, right now it’s still constrained by current technological limitations. It’s not that Apple couldn’t stuff the most powerful silicon it has into the headset. It just makes much more practical sense to focus on display quality and efficient wireless data transmission rather than totally reinvent how these headsets work. That can be done on later iterations of the device — if Apple even chooses to pursue that. So far, mixed reality headsets haven’t made much headway with average consumers outside of gaming. They’ve primarily been used as enterprise devices.

In any case, we’re still at least a year out from even catching a glimpse of this thing. Previous reports have indicated that Apple plans to launch this headset in 2022, with sleeker AR glasses coming by 2025. However, at this stage in development, it’s very possible Apple could push that date back further. On the other hand, it’s not likely that Apple will wait too long. CEO Tim Cook recently intimated that he wants to stick around to launch one more new major product category, but doesn’t foresee himself still being at the helm in a decade. So basically, sometime before 2030, we’ll see Apple’s mixed reality headset and possibly a pair of smart glasses. Excited yet?