It’s no secret that Apple is cooking up some type of augmented reality hardware at its Cupertino headquarters. CEO Tim Cook has broadly hinted at the company’s ambitions to deliver a head-mounted display or smart glasses device at some point in the future. More recently, Cook said that the “the technology itself doesn’t exist” to make augmented reality goggles at the level of quality Apple desires, suggesting the company may at hard at work rethinking conventional approaches to try and come up with a unique way to tackle the hurdles involved.
A new patent application, published today with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and detailed by Slashgear, sheds new light on Apple’s intended milestones for such a device — even if the finished product is years away from seeing the light of day. One the primary goals, it seems, is to create a headset or glasses that are much more comfortable and light than modern-day AR and VR devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens and Facebook-owned Oculus VR’s Rift headset.
While the patent application obviously doesn’t describe competing devices by name, Apple does lay out in its summary how “if care is not taken, a head-mounted display may be cumbersome and tiring to wear.” Apple describes the optical systems for these displays as “bulky and heavy,” and that “extended use of a head-mounted display with this type of optical system may be uncomfortable.”
Apple proposes its device use what’s called a catadioptric system, which uses curved mirrors and lenses to combine refraction and reflection into a single system. Catadioptric systems form the basis of optical telescopes, microscopes, and telephoto lenses. Using the system, Apple may be able to do away with the magnifying lenses used in standard VR headsets to blow up images large enough for users to see. That could, in theory, reduce the weight of such a product and help slim down its design in the process.
Still, as with most patent applications, this could just be Apple covering its bases, and this particular lens strategy may have no eventual bearing on whatever device the company does end up producing. The modern-day version of Apple is known for taking its time with technologies that are nascent, like wearables, smart speakers, and wireless headphones, and refining its approach before bringing a product to market. Only then do we get a product launch in the form of something like the Apple Watch or AirPods.
Although both of the latter devices have been well-received, it’s not clear Apple’s traditional way of tackling new product categories will help it succeed in AR or VR, where companies like Microsoft and Facebook have been pouring billions into acquisitions, research, and product development. But it’s too early to tell where these markets are headed, with VR hype having faded and AR still in the realm of prototypes and dev kits. So Apple is likely playing a long game and waiting to see where the chips fall, and that could play out in its favor if, like Cook has suggested, the company waits until the technology catches up with our expectations of the eventual product.