If a Tree That Was Never Announced Falls in a Forest Does It Make a Sound?

Mark Gurman, at Bloomberg, “Apple Delays AR Glasses, Plans Cheaper Mixed-Reality Headset”:

Apple Inc. is still planning to unveil its first mixed-reality headset this year, but an even more important follow-up product — lightweight augmented-reality glasses — has been postponed due to technical challenges.

The company had originally hoped to release the AR glasses after the debut of its mixed-reality headset, which combines both AR and virtual reality, but that part of the plan is now on hold. Instead, Apple will follow up with a lower-cost version of the mixed-reality headset as soon as 2024 or early 2025, according to people familiar with the deliberations. [...]

The company is focusing on the lower-cost headset instead of the AR glasses, which were once planned to be released about a year after the initial headset, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the project is still under wraps. At one point, Apple aimed to release the glasses in 2023, before delaying the launch until around 2025. Now, Apple has postponed the rollout indefinitely and pared back its work on the AR device.

The “once planned” link above points to this June 2020 report, also from Gurman, which concludes with this:

Although plans could change, in an all-hands meeting last fall, Rockwell said the first headset may be announced next year and released in 2022. Apple fans can expect the AR glasses by 2023 at the earliest.

To me, there’s some heavy spin in this piece to paint Apple’s AR glasses schedule as a significant setback and disappointment. And while Gurman has been on fire with Apple scoops lately, his coverage of the mixed reality goggles expected this year has been similarly slanted. If Mike Rockwell told Apple’s AR/VR team in June 2020 that the company’s first headset may be released in 2022 and it is released in 2023, I’m not sure that counts as late by any measure, even the rumor mill’s. And I don’t see how that concluding sentence suggests anyone in the know ever expected the AR glasses to ship in 2023, let alone qualifies as the company having “once planned” on such a date. You don’t have be an engineer to realize how much more difficult regular-looking glasses with all-day battery life, comfort, and functionality are than a bulky ski-mask-style VR headset. It never made sense to me that the AR glasses could be one year behind the bulky goggles, and no one I’ve ever spoken to with knowledge of this team’s work has ever suggested they were expected to appear a mere year apart.

To me it’s like trying to argue in 1968 that NASA’s first mission to Mars had been postponed indefinitely, when they hadn’t yet landed on the moon.

And when I say bulky, I mean bulky. Gurman seconds a tidbit first reported by The Information’s Wayne Ma two weeks ago — that the battery will be external and tethered by cable. Gurman writes:

The headset’s battery also will be cumbersome, with the company choosing to not include it in the device itself to reduce the weight and heating risks of the head-worn product. The battery will connect to the headset over a cable and rest in a user’s back pocket. Creating a lightweight device with advanced augmented reality and a built-in battery that could last all day isn’t feasible with today’s technology.

None of this really makes sense. A tethered battery sounds like an utter non-starter to me, but on the surface I’m sure it sounds like an utter non-starter to everyone at Apple too. If it’s true, it could and should be because it’s a design decision that’s worthwhile, to support an experience that’s worth the inherent hassle. It certainly shouldn’t be what it sounds like in these reports, which is “Fuck it, we need to ship something, so let’s just stick the battery on a cable and it’ll go in their pocket.

And if this original headset really is going to cost around $3,000 — which Gurman states as fact in this report, and Wayne Ma reports again tonight too — how in the world is it supposed to be news that the company is already thinking about a lower-priced version to come afterward? That’s “Dog Bites Man”. A “Man Bites Dog” story would be if Apple didn’t see any need for a headset that cost less than $3,000.

What most caught my eye in Gurman’s report was this remark from the closing paragraph (his reports often have the best nuggets at the very end):

Some people within Apple doubt that the company will ever ship AR glasses, but it remains a long-term goal.

I find that hard to believe, that anyone at Apple would think never for good AR glasses. Some ideas that feel within reach turn out to be a decade or more away, but they’re still on the horizon, and Apple’s culture is a patient, diligent, long-term-thinking culture. And an optimistic one. In 2006 it was dogma that all cell phones were destined to suck, because the carriers sucked, the carriers controlled the phones, and it seemed like no company could ever break that control. Things can change. Progress comes.

While I’m at it, Ma’s report from two weeks ago contained this, uh, eye-catching nugget:

The headset has inward-facing displays for each eye and a large outward-facing display on the front of the device. The external display can show the facial expressions of the person wearing the headset, along with other types of imagery, to people around the user, which is meant to reduce the isolation users might otherwise feel when wearing the device.

My understanding is that there is no front-facing screen, but that Apple’s team had long joked about such an idea, and perhaps someone who heard the joking mistook the idea as real and passed it along to Ma. It sure sounds like a joke to me, but maybe my understanding is wrong. Unless I’m forgetting something, Gurman has never reported on a front-facing screen. (Also, the headset has built-in headphones — why in the world would a $3,000 gadget that goes around your head need external headphones?)

Anyway. Something is definitely coming from Apple from this team this year, and I get the sense the company thinks it’s going to be something special. If true, that means it will likely also not be what most people outside the company are expecting. Outsiders inevitably base expectations on the current state of the art. But the iPhone was not an iPod phone. Apple Watch was not a Fitbit with a higher price. If Apple is still Apple, this first headset should be much more than a slightly nicer version of VR headsets as we know them.