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Nov. 11, 2019, 8:29 p.m.

Of all the new interfaces that could conceivably surpass or supplant the smartphone as the center of our infouniverses — voice! VR! chatbots! smart rings! smart refrigerators! — the one that’s always made the most sense to me is essentially augmented reality in the guise of current and future Apple products. By which I mean the combination of:

— an Apple Watch on your wrist that can subtly draw or demand your attention via haptic feedback and be your bite-sized screen;

AirPods in your ears, able to whisper alerts or instructions and to hear voice commands; and

— Apple Glasses, a future product that looks like a standard pair of reading glasses but which can project information or AR overlays in front of your eyes and “see” the real world around you.

Two-thirds of a rough alpha version of that world — where your smartphone screen gets abstracted away unless necessary — is already here. And you can see the direction Apple’s headed by watching those products evolve.

Over time, the Apple Watch has gained cellular service (so it can run independent of an iPhone), a low-energy display that lets it be on all day long, an ever-broadening array of sensors, and most importantly, a regularly reduced cost of entry (from $349 at launch to $199 now). All of that has turned a product that some considered a flop for weirdos to a mainstream hit, with estimates of more than 30 million sold each year.

Meanwhile, AirPods have gone from the subject of mockery to the pockets of just about everyone you know. Apple is projected to sell more than 50 million pairs of AirPods this year and 80 million next year. They have completely normalized the social oddity of people walking around with little white sticks coming out of their ears. And the latest Pro models’ killer feature is “Transparency,” a noise-canceling mode that allows all the noise of the outside world to passthrough to your ears as if you weren’t wearing earbuds at all — a new layer of sound, “audio AR.”

Even the iPhone seems to getting ready to enable its attention replacement, with a wider scope for image processing, a 3D camera for real-time modeling of space, faster processors, and 5G data throughput either new or expected next year.

These are precursors to that AR future that have gone from strange and mock-worthy to utterly mainstream in just a few short years. The missing piece is the glasses — the ambient visual information that unlocks a whole new set of interfaces. If anyone can make it socially acceptable to wear a screen on your face, it’s probably Apple. (It certainly wasn’t Google.)

So when the industry started to buzz that the long-awaited Apple Glasses might be coming as soon as next year, I got a little excited. (Bloomberg last month: “Apple’s Smart Glasses Could Make 2020 the Year of AR…Apple has targeted 2020 for the release of its AR headset, an attempt to succeed where Google Glass failed years ago. The glasses are expected to synchronize with a wearer’s iPhone to display things such as texts, emails, maps, and games over the user’s field of vision.”) That other companies, including Amazon, have been releasing smart glasses (of varying quality) also made it seem possible.

But sadly, The Information dumped all over that excitement Monday with a report that, well, seems more realistic but also far more boring:

Apple is aiming to release an augmented-reality headset in 2022 and a sleeker pair of AR glasses by 2023, The Information has learned.

Apple executives discussed the timelines, which haven’t been previously reported, in an internal presentation to employees at the company’s Cupertino, California, campus in October, according to people familiar with the matter. Apple Vice President Mike Rockwell, who heads the team responsible for Apple’s AR and virtual reality initiatives, led the meeting, which included new details about the design and features of the AR headset, these people said. The product timetables run counter to recent analyst and media reports that said an Apple AR device could arrive as early as next year.

The group presentation was attended by enough employees to fill the 1,000-seat Steve Jobs Theater at Apple headquarters, suggesting Apple has a sizable team working on AR projects.

Bummer. (Also, Apple, apparently not all 1,000 of those employees can keep a secret.) The 2022 AR headset sounds interesting, but it’s the glasses that could take AR as mainstream as AirPods and Apple Watches. (“They are meant to be worn all day, and current prototypes look like high-priced sunglasses with thick frames that house the battery and chips, according to a person who has seen them.”)

The later target release date for Apple’s full-fledged AR glasses likely reflects technology hurdles that everyone in the industry is seeking to overcome. Many of the software features in Apple’s upcoming devices, such as advanced human detection, are available today but are computationally intensive, demanding mobile-processing and battery power that is beyond what is currently capable in the form factor of glasses.

Making these devices lighter so they can be worn for longer periods of time is also a major challenge. Apple has explored using lightweight aerospace or composite materials for the AR devices, but these materials continue to be expensive for mass production, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Size and power usage issues have a way of working themselves out over time, and it appears they have more working out to do. Bloomberg, the source of those 2020 expectations, has matched The Information’s piece.

Photo by A.Wolff used under a Creative Commons license.

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