Apple has confirmed the acquisition of Akonia Holographics, a Colorado-based startup that manufactures augmented reality (AR) waveguide lenses.
The move is a signal that Apple intends to launch lightweight wearables with lenses that overlay digital information on the real world in daylight – either as an standalone device (see below), or as an interface for Apple’s iOS-powered range.
Akonia says that its HoloMirror display technology is based on “thin, transparent smart-glass lenses that display vibrant, full-colour, wide field-of-view images”.
The firm, which was founded in 2012, has amassed a portfolio of more than 200 patents related to holographic systems and materials, according to its website.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that he sees AR as the next “big and profound” movement in computing interfaces, and rumours have suggested a launch in 2020. “This is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it,” he said of AR during a conference call with investors last year.
As is its standard practice, the company has not released details of the Akonia deal. “Apple buys smaller companies from time to time, and we generally don’t discuss our purpose or plans,” it said in a statement.
Reuters quotes “one executive in the augmented reality industry” saying the Akonia team had been “very quiet” over the previous six months, implying that the deal may have been inked in the first half of the year.
So what are Apple’s plans?
In May, it was reported that Apple was working on a wireless headset capable of running both augmented and virtual reality applications – the so-called ‘T288’ project.
According to that report, Apple has been developing an 8K display for each eye, in a headset that would be untethered from a computer or smartphone, and instead communicate wirelessly with a tower-style base station.
Such a system could be powered by Apple’s own silicon, as it leads the industry trend adopted by Facebook and others of consolidating chip design and production internally, to retain control over new product development and reduce reliance on companies such as Intel.
The rumours came in the wake of Intel’s announcement that it was shutting up shop on its Vaunt AR glasses.
Last June, Apple unveiled its ARKit to enable developers to make augmented reality apps for iPhones and iPads. It also said it was working with Valve to bring the Steam VR platform to its Mac range of desktops and laptops.
Internet of Business says
Intel’s closure of its Vaunt programme earlier this year, after ploughing millions of dollars into it, reveals the size of the challenge facing Apple.
The AR and VR hardware markets are diverse and complex, but devices have so far failed to capture users’ imaginations in the numbers that analysts have long been predicting – outside of the gaming world, or in niche industrial deployments, where wearable technology has proven applications.
To succeed in a world of low-friction mobile communication platforms, VR and AR devices need to be wearable, discreet, lightweight, and – above all – useful, leaving the door wide open for Apple to popularise the technology.
The trillion-dollar company’s wearables business, which includes the Apple Watch and wireless AirPod headphones, saw 60 percent year-on-year revenue growth in its most recent quarterly results, bringing total sales over the last four quarters to more than $10 billion for the fledgling unit.
Apple Watch continues to be the best selling smartwatch by a wide margin and CEO Cook said that the device will become “an even stronger companion for fitness, communication, and quick access to information”.
Siri requests from all devices have exceeded 100 billion so far this fiscal year, he added.
So: will Apple’s AR product be a lightweight consumer wearable with Siri built in? Don’t bet against it.
But at this stage it is unknown whether Apple’s AR launch will be a standalone device or an iOS peripheral. The former would be the bolder move for a company in search of the next big idea, but the latter may prove to be an easier, more popular sell.