Apple headset: Inside sources describe major roadblocks that have pushed back potential launch date by years

A new report sheds light on the development challenges and infighting between departments that have contributed to a delay in the potential Apple headset launch.

A head-worn mixed reality Apple headset device is imagined in this concept
Image credit: Andrea Copellino / Behance
  • The launch of Apple’s rumored mixed reality headset has been delayed several times, according to the latest rumors, due to technical challenges.
  • Company politics and infighting between departments often meant that team leaders who managed the project had to fight with their colleagues for resources.
  • We’re now expecting a mixed-reality headset from Apple to arrive in 2023, perhaps even later, costing between $2,500-$3,000. It’s said to be a standalone, highly advanced device aimed at developers and early adopters.

Apple headset: Fighting for resources

The rumored device may have recently passed the second phase of engineering validation and testing, suggesting mass production might kick off this fall, barring any unforeseen technical challenges. In other words, an Apple headset might see the light of day either near the end of 2022 or sometime in 2023. The project is led by former Dolby executive Mike Rockwell who often had to fight with his Apple colleagues for resources. And now, The Information has talked to a bunch of Apple sources who have helped paint a not-so-rosy picture regarding organizational and technical challenges that have complicated the product’s release. But first, read this excerpt on how the team in 2016 gave a demo of an early prototype to Apple’s board to build support at the highest levels for bigger investments.

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 augmented reality, in which they can still view the physical world around them, to the more immersive experience of virtual reality—a combination known as mixed reality.

So why hasn’t this mixed-reality device been released already?

Technical challenges have been the biggest factor in the delays, as has been the case in the past for Apple’s most ambitious new products, such as the iPhone. But the Apple smartphone also had a singularly influential figure in Apple co-founder Steve Jobs to midwife it.

Company politics and infighting can kill products before they see the light of day, as evidenced by this anecdote that perfectly illustrates one of Apple’s problems.

In early 2018, for example, one of Rockwell’s team members asked Apple’s camera hardware engineering group to add a firmware feature that would improve the speed with which the headset’s cameras could capture images and reproject them in a display. Rockwell’s group wanted to include the feature in a prototype headset ahead of an important demo for Apple’s top 100 employees, known as the T100. The member of Rockwell’s group was told the headset wasn’t a priority and his group would have to wait until after the iPhone XS shipped later that year.

Well, Jobs passed away and Tim Cook is not a product visionary.

While Apple’s current CEO, Tim Cook, supports the headset project, he hasn’t been as active in the effort as Jobs was with the iPhone’s development, according to five people familiar with the project. For example, he rarely visits the group at its offices away from the main Apple campus, those people said. The lack of a honcho of Cook’s stature to champion the headset, code-named N301, has made it harder at times for it to compete with other products such as the Mac and iPhone for head count and engineering resources, the people said.

And that’s the biggest problem with Tim Cook’s Apple. During the Cook era, Apple has hired countless managers to bolster its top and middle management ranks. The managers are now fighting for resources, and all this infighting between departments seems to make it harder and harder for Apple to create new products.

How Apple headers pivoted from VR to MR

The rumored mixed reality accessory was originally conceived as a virtual reality headset. Internally code-named T429, it was known only to a small circle of people within the headset development group. You’d put it on your head and it would completely engulf you in the virtual world. But Apple’s former design boss Jony Ive resisted the plan, arguing that virtual reality headsets were dead on arrival.

Rockwell, Meier and Rothkopf soon encountered pushback from Ive’s team. The three men had initially wanted to build a virtual reality headset, but Ive’s group had concerns about the technology, said three people who worked on the project. They believed virtual reality 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.

Ive, the most influential figure within Apple in terms of product development and design, was able to convince the team to work on a mixed reality headset instead. Read: 10 free ways to send large videos and files from iPhone

The men came up with a solution to address the concerns of Ive’s team. For example, they proposed adding cameras to the front of the headset so that people wearing the device could see their surroundings, said the three people. But the feature that ultimately sold the industrial designers on the project was a concept for 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.

Well… That sounds a bit scary… The cameras and other proposed features did address the worries about VR-induced alienation. The Information will also publish a second part of this report which will chronicle how Jony Ive in 2019 killed a headset prototype that connected to a processing box to operate, requiring instead that the team come up with a standalone device. Read: How to clone your iPhone