Apple Quietly Reveals AR Headset Development

Colin McMahon
Sep 16, 2019

On September 10, Apple hosted its annual Fall event – unveiling its product plans for the coming year. For the most part, everything went as expected. The iPhone 11 was announced (along with Pro versions), as well as the Apple Watch Series 5. A new iPad was also unveiled – one especially designed for entry-level customers. Apple also gave updates to its Apple Arcade and Apple TV plus platforms, pledging continued support and attractive price points. Overall, there really wasn’t much to write headlines about…or was there?

Apple’s new OS – iOS 13 was included in the unveiling. It is this new OS that raised many eyebrows. While much of the public only scans through Apple technical documents on the path to the “click here if you agree” option, more savvy users have been carefully reviewing everything in the advanced iOS 13 notes. One user, an iOS developer named Steve Troughton-Smith, appears to have found something quite interesting:

 

This isn’t the first time “Garta” has drawn attention. The name has been swirling around for weeks – as part of a rumor on Apple’s internal development of augmented reality (AR) hardware. Its appearance in the developer framework to iOS 13 seems to state that there was more to the rumor than initially thought.

In fact, the framework says that if developers are hoping to program for “Garta” – specifically if they want to test stereo AR apps, they must first set these apps to ‘worn’ mode as opposed to ‘held.’ This strongly suggests that Garta is Apple’s codename for its first stereoscopic AR headset – one that may be near to release (or at least public unveiling). Troughton-Smith also found evidence that the framework in iOS 13 contains references to a game controller designed to be used alongside these apps. Whether this means a separate controller or just a button interface on the headset itself, it is still too early to say.

Apple’s History with AR

While Apple has not officially confirmed any headset or dedicated AR hardware, the company has already embraced the technology. ARKit was released as part of iOS 11 and gave developers tools to create smartphone-based AR experiences. Since its initial release, Apple has provided continued support to ARKit, improving its features and allowing developers greater control throughout the creation process.

CEO Tim Cook has also been continuously bullish on AR during earnings and analyst calls. In 2017 (the same year as the release of ARKit), Cook was quoted as saying “Simply put, we believe augmented reality is going to change the way we use technology forever.” In February of 2018, Cook doubled down on those comments, saying that he saw “AR as being profound.”

Just earlier this year, Cook appeared alongside SAP CEO Bill McDermott to discuss AR use in the enterprise space. During the discussion, Cook stated that “AR and ML (machine learning) will be key to delivering the right information to the right person at the right time.”

In addition, Apple has also made a series of acquisitions over the last several years – both companies and dedicated personnel – with AR experience. The company has also filed several patents on designs revolving around AR.

Apple Augmented Reality Headset Patent

Image from a patent granted to Apple in February 2019.

What Apple’s Headset may Mean

Given this continued support, it is no surprise that Apple is thinking hard about dedicated AR hardware. However, the bigger story may be what an Apple product like this could mean to the AR hardware space as a whole. One only has to think back to the smartphone in its early days. Before the iPhone, the biggest player in smartphone hardware was Blackberry – a device used almost exclusively in the enterprise space.

iPhone’s unveiling didn’t just challenge the Blackberry on its own turf, it transformed smartphone technology from an enterprise-only device to a common household item. Today, the vast majority of US consumers own a smartphone.

Looking at AR hardware today, one can’t deny the similarities in the landscape. Microsoft is currently dominating the headset market with its Hololens (with Hololens 2 soon to be readily available). Other notable players include Magic Leap and Google. One common trait among each hardware set? All are designed pretty much exclusively for business use. There is no sign of a serious consumer headset anywhere.

The time is approaching when a headset will again attempt to make the jump from enterprise-only gizmo to commonly owned commercial item. Given Apple’s success with the smartphone and (to a lesser extent) the Apple Watch, it may be very likely that the company will try to repeat history by creating a product that satisfies both consumer and business markets. At this point, it is very doubtful that Apple wants to release “just another” enterprise AR headset.

The AR market is rapidly evolving. Those who wish to stay up to date with concrete data should consider purchasing InfoTrends’ 2018 Immersive Imaging Study, which profiles both the AR space as well as virtual reality (VR). InfoTrends will continue to follow AR, as well as watch Apple’s involvement, so that we may better understand exactly what an AR headset could mean in the coming years.

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