On Wednesday, well-connected Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo once more reported that Apple is working on an AR headset. This time, Kuo forecast that the headset will be unveiled in the first half of 2020, and that it will partner with unnamed "third-party brands." In line with some other reports, Kuo states Apple's headset will rely on a paired iPhone for processing power and wireless connectivity.
The part about third-party brands could be a reference to eyewear makers such as Luxottica, given how other AR headset developers have also teamed with them.
Kuo also reported that Apple plans to launch a successor to the 4-inch iPhone SE in Q1 2020 (it might have a 4.7-inch display), along with new iPad Pros whose rear camera systems feature 3D time-of-flight sensors that could enable new augmented reality experiences (Apple's 2020 iPhones are also expected to have this feature). A MacBook with a revamped keyboard is expected in Q2 2020.
Kuo's report comes not long after code spotted in iOS 13 and the latest version of Apple's Xcode's developer toolset suggested one or more AR headsets are in development. Among other things, the code indicates Apple is working on a solution (referred to as StarBoard) for using an iPhone to power an AR headset's display, and is testing headsets codenamed Luck, Franc and Garta that have fields of view (FOVs) ranging from 58 to 68 degrees.
Bloomberg and CNET have also reported over the last two years that Apple is working on an AR headset. Bloomberg indicated the headset would rely on an operating system known as rOS (short for reality operating system).
Apple, meanwhile, has made a string of acquisitions in recent years that could assist with an AR headset project. Notable ones include the purchases of Akonia Holographics, a smart glasses lens maker and SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI), an eye-tracking technology developer.
Though AR (like virtual reality) is still in its infancy, it's not hard to see how lightweight consumer AR headsets that can be worn outdoors could take off in time. Potential use cases include everything from delivering important notifications (e-mails, text messages, etc.), to surfacing useful information/content related to a user's physical environment, to gaming and live-streaming.
In addition, though some of the early hype about 5G is overdone (at least when it comes to its impact on smartphone user experiences), 5G could meaningfully improve AR user experiences, since the lower latency of 5G networks will allow information and content to be surfaced more quickly.
As I've mentioned before, Apple has some valuable strengths it can bring to the table if and when it launches a consumer AR headset. Chief among them: Its chip and hardware engineering capabilities; the AR developer ecosystem it has been building via its ARKit platform for iPhones and iPads; and its full control over the smartphone hardware and software that an AR headset will be paired with. This hardware/software control, it's worth noting, has contributed to the success of the Apple Watch and AirPods.
Alphabet/Google (GOOGL - Get Report) , which refreshed its enterprise-focused Google Glass headset earlier this year, has a somewhat different set of strengths in this battle. While Google (its Pixel phones excepted) doesn't have hardware control at the smartphone level, it does have Google Android, its ARCore platform for Android developers and a slew of very popular apps and services (Google Assistant, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Photos, YouTube, etc.) that it could integrate with a consumer AR headset platform. Ultimately, Apple and Google's mobile OS dominance arguably puts the two companies in the driver's seat as consumer AR evolves.
It could take some time for consumer AR headsets to go mainstream, however. A mass-market headset will need to address lingering technical challenges related to issues such as display quality (previously mentioned by Tim Cook), battery life, weight and heat dissipation, as well as to have a robust software/services platform underpinning it and be supported by a strong developer ecosystem. Chances are that these issues won't be collectively addressed overnight.
However, this still looks like a market with considerable long-term potential. And from the looks of things, we might not have to wait too long for Apple to show off its first offering for it.