Apple has reportedly killed its AR glasses due to alleged technical problems, but this is actually a sign of the product design troubles that have been brewing at Apple for a very long time.
The report came yesterday from Digitimes, which has a mixed track record through its sources in component and manufacturing companies. It contradicts Ming-Chi Kuo, an analyst who in March claimed that supply sources confirmed that Apple may start producing AR glasses as soon as the end of 2019.
But now Digitimes says otherwise also citing supply chain sources. The outlet claims that Apple has disbanded the AR team and has halted its fabled AR Glasses project for the time being. It seems that the technology is nowhere near ready yet to materialize this magical Next Big Thing that can change the world (and make Apple an innovation leader) once again.
However, if true, this latest report highlights a much deeper problem. This is just the tip of the iceberg: Apple’s alleged lack of product focus that was recently brought into the spotlight by the Wall Street Journal, but that has been obvious for the last couple of years.
How the glasses came to be and (maybe) died
But before we get into that, let’s look at what has happened with the glasses from the beginning.
Everything started when the company led by Tim Cook — who claims to be a fan of AR — started to buy companies related to augmented reality. Quite a few of them, in fact. In 2015, Apple acquired Metaio, which provided the software code that formed the basis for Apple ARKit, the company’s augmented reality development kit for iOS. In 2017 alone, Apple bought InVisage Tecnologies (an American quantum dot-based image sensor manufacturer), Regain (a French computer vision company), Vrvana (a Canadian manufacturer of augmented reality head-mounted displays), and SensoMotoric Instruments (which makes eye tracking hardware and software). Most recently, Apple bought Akonia Holographics and its 200 AR patents.
Now, the adventure may have been halted by physics. The Digitimes report claims that there are hardware limitations that make it impossible to create a consumer-oriented AR product with the features and price point that Apple wants. The computing power to make the experience as “magical” as Apple would like — even counting with the iPhone as a wireless video driver unit — is still not there. The optical design, the report says, is still not enough to provide with enough field of view to seamlessly integrate the AR images with your vision. And the heat dissipation, Digitimes says, is a problem too.
All these mounting problems and frustrations ended in the departure of Apple’s AR glassesteam lead Avi Bar-Zeev. He was one of the inventors of the Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality glasses. Bar-Zeev joined the company in 2016, around the time when Ive allegedly started to have troubles with Apple’s top brass.
The Apple product design crisis
If confirmed, the AR glasses crisis will be just one of many — all of them indicative of a culture shift that may eventually threaten the future of the company.
The Cupertino company has crashed against multiple hardware and software design walls recently. Most recently, Apple acknowledged the issues with its highly problematic MacBook keyboard design, which has resulted in an expanded repair program and a slightly redesigned key design — it’s still unclear if this will work.
And back on March, Apple had to pull the plug on AirPower. The charging mat for its iPhone and Watch was a mess, with technology that simply didn’t work and frustrated engineers who couldn’t deliver on the multiple promises made by Apple marketing at its events.
The design woes have affected iPhone sales, too, which stalled with the introduction of the iPhone X. The sales stagnation turned into a definitive sales drop with the iPhone XS, which can be attributed to excessive prices tied to a lackluster design (which hasn’t fundamentally changed since the iPhone 6) and a lack of true innovation when it comes to hardware features.
The fact is that the iPhone is not a leader any more on any front. Beaten by Samsung and Huawei in sales, and crushed by the innovation of manufacturers like Huawei, Samsung, Xiaomi, and Oppo, who are consistently delivering phones with much more advanced camera features — like 5x optical zoom and spectacular AI-driven night modes using multiple sensors. The Chinese and Korean phones also have better battery and memory capacities, high quality manufacturing, innovative designs, and often much lower prices.
And it doesn't look like things will get better any time soon. Multiple analysts claim that the iPhone 11 will struggle because it will just be more of the same.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple has lost its product focus and the design situation is a mess. In fact, the newspaper’s sources claim that this lack of product focus caused by Tim Cook’s disinterest in what used to be Apple’s core mission prompted Jony Ive to quit.
The Journal’s insider sources claim that the Apple CEO and a board of directors populated by beige people don’t share Jobs’ product focus. Instead, the company is focused on peddling iterative products for the highest price possible. Cook denied the report, but the Journal stands by it. In a letter sent to NBC, Cook also claimed that “the projects they’re working on will blow you away.”
Well, according to Digitimes’ report, that doesn’t include the fabled AR glasses anymore.
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Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story and wrote old angry man rants, among other things. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce, and currently writes for Fast Company and Tom's Guide.