Apple is a notorious black box when it comes to internal projects, although sometimes details based on supply chain rumors shed a sliver of light on what might be happening with the company’s AR/VR headset behind closed doors. Much less common coming from Apple are direct internal leaks, however a report from The Information alleges that 10 people on Apple’s mixed reality headset project team have detailed some of the past design challenges and possible direction the headset may take moving forward.

The report (via 9to5Mac) details some anecdotes reaching back as far as 2016, when the company allegedly first showed off a number of AR and VR prototypes to industry leaders and Apple elite.

Former Vice President Al Gore, then–Disney CEO Bob Iger and other Apple board members walked from room to room, trying out prototype augmented and virtual reality devices and software. One of the gadgets made a tiny digital rhinoceros appear on a table in the room. The creature then grew into a life-size version of itself, according to two people familiar with the meeting. In the same demo, the drab surroundings of the room transformed into a lush forest, showing how users could seamlessly transition from AR, in which they can still view the physical world around them, to the more immersive experience of VR—a combination known as mixed reality.

It was more of a conceptual showcase at the time, the report maintains, as some prototypes ran on Windows while others were based on the original HTC Vive. Like the ‘The Sword of Damocles’ built by Ivan Sutherland in the late 60s—the founding father of virtual reality—one such prototype was also supposedly so heavy it was “suspended by a small crane so the Apple board members could wear it without straining their necks.”

None of that’s particularly uncommon practice when it comes to hardware development—just ask Magic Leap insiders from the early days—however the report notes the company’s MR headset hasn’t gained the same support from Apple’s current CEO, Tim Cook, that Steve Jobs had for iPhone’s development. The report says Cook “rarely visits the group at its offices away from the main Apple campus.”

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There’s also allegedly been some political infighting that has stymied development, which we’ve heard in a previous report from 2019 when it was alleged Apple was pumping the breaks on the headset due to discord between then-Apple hardware designer Jony Ive and project lead Mike Rockwell. Ive has since departed the company in 2019 to pursue his own design company, LoveFrom.

Rockwell, Meier and Rothkopf soon encountered pushback from Ive’s team. The three men had initially wanted to build a VR headset, but Ive’s group had concerns about the technology, said three people who worked on the project. They believed VR alienated users from other people by cutting them off from the outside world, made users look unfashionable and lacked practical uses. Apple’s industrial designers were unconvinced that consumers would be willing to wear headsets for long periods of time, two of the people said.

While the teams proposed adding passthrough cameras to the front of the headset, codenamed N301, Apple industrial designers were decidedly more intrigued with a concept for what sources tell The Information was an “outward-facing screen on the headset. The screen could display video images of the eyes and facial expressions of the person wearing the headset to other people in the room.”

The report doesn’t go any further than 2019, however The Information’s Wayne Ma is supposedly publishing a piece soon that covers “pivotal moment for the Apple headset.”

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Like we said, Apple is a black box, which means it doesn’t comment on on-going projects or respond meaningfully to media requests for clarity. Looking back at previously reports however may provide a rough picture of what to expect. The information below is based on reports, so please take it with a grain of salt.

What We (think we) Know About N301 Mixed Reality Headset

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  • Don McMahon

    So the outward facing screen of showing my expressions seems like a misfire to me. Outward facing cameras giving me an enhanced view and heads up display capabilities would be much more useful. If apple managed to create that capability and open it up to the app store and a wide variety of apps by 3rd parties we would likely see the same explosion of uses and creativity as the iOS stores.

    • James Cobalt

      Hence the friction with Ives’ team, which was regularly criticized for dogmatically pursuing form over function. See: uncomfortable and useless butterfly keys, terrible thermal designs that throttle performance, a touch bar they never did anything with, increasingly thinner devices that sacrificed battery space and useful ports – even on “pro” devices…

      His exit and the ensuing shakeup was long overdue for the company, with both consumers and the press applauding a “return to form” for product direction.

  • XRC

    “Apple’s industrial designers were unconvinced that consumers would be willing to wear headsets for long periods of time”

    Interesting stuff, as a former industrial designer and now a hardware developer, it’s hard to disagree…

    • Daniel Lingard Leaper

      This is the thing VR enthusiasts want to ignore but its just a fact. Even glasses is an issue for a lot of people, like regular glasses. I mention that because its an argument I’ve had thrown at me. “when they get to the size of glasses…..”
      Most people I know that have to wear glasses wouldn’t if they didn’t need to. I mean laser eye surgery is a thing exactly because of that. Therefore like regular glasses, ARVR glasses would have to be something people cannot live without for it to become a mass adopted device.

      • knuckles625

        I get the line of thinking but “can’t live without” seems too high a bar – 80% or more people (depending on the statistic referenced) wear sunglasses, which I don’t think ever cross into an absolute necessity and are more often a fashion choice than a functional need

        • Daniel Lingard Leaper

          well you cant live without seeing really, cant drive, cant read, cant watch tv, cant work in some cases etc. And im just repeating what people who wear glasses say to me (“I cant live without my glasses” is something I’ve heard a lot)
          Yeah I hear your sunglasses fashion thing but ultimately whether its for that reason or not, you’ve still got to wear them in the sun to see & to protect your vision.

      • kontis

        With this kind of thinking even a computers don’t make sense, because they don’t sell in billions like smartphones.

        The thing with mainstream obsessed people is they completely ignore the world beyond things that are used by billion+ people. Surpisingly Zuckerberg is fully capable of making the distinction (VR for millions, future smartlglasses for billions), but many analysts and some people at Apple and some commenters here cannot.

        Most people don’t use and will never use large bulky audiophile headphones every day, but millions do. Most are satisfied with little earplugs like airpoids, but saying that only those make sense because they are small and convenient and well looking is absurd.

        Go to a parallel universe where headphones never existed and people would mock any company trying to get them to the market despite their value.

        Sleek smartglasses won’t be able to achieve experience of a bulky headset for more than a decade (and most likely much longer than that).
        And there are already millions of people who see value in it and ironically majority of current VR use time globally is NOT typical gaming, but socializing and telepresence.

        Sometimes reading expert analysis about XR market feels like that insane article about impossibility of having legs in VR (because Meta doesn’t have them, so that must be true…. hah.)

  • M

    Does anyone have access to the article? Thats one expensive Paywall

  • mappo

    No controllers, a tethered battery, a frigging external display on the headset. All for the low low price of $3,000. This is going to be the mother of all trainwrecks.