Senate approves $1.9 trillion stimulus bill WandaVision season finale recap Coming 2 America review Razer's Anzu audio glasses Space Jam 2's Lola Bunny Best Buy's 3-day sale Raya and the Last Dragon

Apple's VR headset could be the road to glasses: The latest rumors and reports

Apple's next big product looks to be a VR headset, and then smart glasses. But when? Here's what to expect, and our guesses as to what else might happen.

Listen
- 15:05
apple-glasses-airpods-watch

Taking a look at Apple's other wearable devices could point to where Apple's rumored glasses are heading.

Scott Stein/CNET

First came VR. Then came a wave of AR headsets that were high-priced and full of promises of wild mixed reality worlds. Apple could be blending AR and VR with two different headsets in the next couple of years, but leading the way with a VR headset more like the Oculus Quest, according to a report in January by Bloomberg's Mark Gurman. But it could be expensive: Maybe even $3,000 or more, with 8K displays, eye tracking and cameras that can scan the world and blend AR and VR together, according to a report Thursday from The Information.

Last year, reports on Apple's AR/VR roadmap suggested internal disagreements, or a split strategy that could mean a VR headset first, and more normal-looking augmented reality smart glasses later. 

Read more: The iPhone 13 rumor mill has already started. Here's what we're hearing

These reports have been going around for several years, including a story broken by CNET's Shara Tibken in 2018. But the question is: When will this happen, exactly? 2021, 2022 or even later? Apple's been building more advanced AR tools into its iPhones and iPads, setting the stage for something more. But we still don't know what that thing (or things) is. What's increasingly clear is that the rest of the AR/VR landscape is facing a slower-than-expected road to AR glasses, too. 

Now playing: Watch this: What Apple's expensive 8K VR headset could be like
14:56

VR, however, is a more easily reachable goal in the short term.

Apple has been in the wings all this time without any headset at all, although the company's aspirations in AR have been clear and well-telegraphed on iPhones and iPads for years. Each year, Apple's made significant strides on iOS with its AR tools. It's been debated how soon this hardware will emerge: next year, the year after or even further down the road. Or whether Apple proceeds with just glasses, or with a mixed-reality VR/AR headset, too.

I've worn more AR and VR headsets than I can even recall, and been tracking the whole landscape for years. In a lot of ways, a future Apple AR headset's logical flight path should be clear from just studying the pieces already laid out. Apple just acquired VR media-streaming company NextVR, and previously purchased AR headset lens-maker Akonia Holographics.

I've had my own thoughts on what the long-rumored headset might be, and so far, the reports feel well aligned to be just that. Much like the Apple Watch, which emerged among many other smartwatches and had a lot of features I'd seen in other forms before, Apple's glasses will probably not be a massive surprise if you've been following the beats of the AR/VR landscape lately.

Remember Google Glass? How about Snapchat's Spectacles? Or the HoloLens, or Magic Leap? Facebook is working on AR glasses, too, and Snap, and also Niantic. The landscape could suddenly get crowded fast.

Here's where Apple is likely to go based on what's been reported, and how the company could avoid the pitfalls of those earlier platforms. 

Apple declined to comment on this story.

Oculus Quest 2

Facebook's Oculus Quest 2 is a self-contained VR headset on the road to AR glasses. Could Apple follow a similar path?

Scott Stein/CNET

An Apple VR headset could be a lot like Facebook's Oculus Quest... but higher end

There's already one well-polished success story in VR, and the Quest 2 looks to be as good a model as any for where future headsets could aim. Gurman's latest report makes a potential Apple VR headset sound a lot like Facebook's standalone device, with controller-free hand tracking and spatial room awareness that could be achieved with Apple's lidar sensor technology, introduced on last year's iPad Pro and iPhone 12 Pro.

Apple's headset could end up serving a more limited pro or creator crowd, or go for a mainstream focus on gaming... or fitness. My recent experiences with the Oculus Quest's fitness tools feel like a natural direction for Apple to head in, now that the Apple Watch is extending to subscription fitness training, pairing with TVs and other devices.

Now playing: Watch this: Oculus Quest 2 is better and cheaper... with one Facebook...
8:56

The Oculus Quest can see through to the real world and extend some level of overlap of virtual objects like room boundaries, but Apple's headset could explore passthrough augmented reality to a greater degree. I've seen impressive examples of this in headsets from companies like Varjo. It could be a stepping stone for Apple to developing 3D augmented reality tech on smaller glasses designs down the road.

Right now, there aren't any smart glasses manufacturers able to develop normal-looking glasses that can achieve advanced, spatially aware 3D overlays of holographic objects. Some devices like the nReal Light have tried, to mixed success. Facebook's upcoming smart glasses this year aren't full AR, but Facebook is working on ways to achieve that tech later on. Apple might take a similar approach with glasses, too.

The VR headset may be a 'Pro' device

Recent reports, including those from Bloomberg and The Information, say the VR headset would likely be so expensive, and powerful, that it would aim for a limited crowd rather than the mainstream. If so, it could target the same business/creative zone that more advanced VR headsets like the Varjo XR-3 are aiming for.

The headset, according to the latest story from The Information, will have 8K displays, an array of cameras for tracking the outside world, plus eye tracking and swappable headbands that could offer extra battery life or spatial audio. 

Varjo's hardware could very well be a roadmap: It has a much higher-resolution display (which Apple is apparently aiming for), can blend AR and VR into mixed reality, and is designed for pro-level creative tools.

But the report also says Apple's headset could work as a standalone device, like the Oculus Quest. Maybe it could work on its own and also in a more advanced mode connected to a Mac, much like the Quest already does.

Controls: Hand tracking, or a small worn device?

The latest report from The Information suggests a more pared-down control system than the elaborate and large game controller-like peripherals used by many VR headsets right now. Apple's headset should work using hand tracking, much like many VR and AR headsets already enable. But Apple may have a small finger-worn accessory for inputs, too. Cracking the control/input challenge seems, in many ways, to be one of the bigger hurdles.

focals2-0-teasehero-02-rgb-3000x1543

North Focals' smart glasses design from earlier this year. North was just acquired by Google.

North

Could future basic smart glasses also be in the works?

Getting people to put on an AR headset is hard. I've found it a struggle to remember to pack smart glasses, and find room to carry them. Most of them don't support my prescription, either.

Apple always touted the Apple Watch, first and foremost, as a "great watch." I expect the same from its glasses. If Apple makes prescription glasses and makes them available, Warby Parker-style, in seasonal frames from its Apple Stores, that might be enough for people if the frames are good looking. Apple's VR headset, according to Gurman, will also offer prescription lenses. That could be a stepping stone to developing glasses later on.

Google acquired smart glasses maker North last year, which made a prescription, nearly normal-like pair of eyewear. North's concept for glasses might be too similar to Google Glass for Apple's tastes, but the idea of AR glasses doubling as functional glasses sounds extremely Apple-like. More recently, Vuzix's planned smart glasses for 2021 show how far the tech has shrunken down, but even those planned glasses won't have the ability to spatially scan the world and overlay augmented reality: They'll be more like advanced glasses with heads-up displays and 3D audio.

A report from The Information from last year said new AR lenses were entering a trial production phase for Apple's AR hardware (9to5Mac also broke the report down). These lenses sound much closer to normal glasses than current AR headsets allow, but when would those be ready?

A more basic pair of smart glasses, released first, could let Apple slowly add more AR features over time and let newcomers settle into the experience. Augmented reality is weird and potentially off-putting, and people will need to feel out how much of it is right for them. The original Apple Watch was designed to be glanced at for five seconds at a time. 

A recent patent filing also showed Apple looking to solve vision conditions with adaptive lenses. If true, this could be the biggest killer app of Apple's intelligent eyewear.

Apple Airpods Max headphones
David Carnoy/CNET

Are the AirPods Max a sign of how expensive a headset could be?

Gurman's latest report on Apple's VR headset suggests a high price for the hardware. That makes sense from Apple. Last year, a report from Apple leaker Jon Prosser said a product named the Apple Glass would start at $499 plus prescription add-ons such as lenses. That price sounds hard to believe for a new Apple product. Sure, the original iPad started at $500. The Apple Watch was around the same. But AR and VR hardware, with the exception of the Oculus Quest, is more complicated. The business-focused HoloLens and Magic Leap cost thousands of dollars. Current VR headsets have trended towards $500 or more.

The latest price reports from The Information have the cost pushing $3,000, which is in the territory of business-focused AR headsets like the HoloLens 2, or business creative VR headsets like those from Varjo. That lines the product up as a Mac Pro type device, well out of most people's price range.

Apple's latest headphones, the AirPods Max, should have indicated the pricing will climb high. At $550, they cost more than a PlayStation 5. They're just headphones. A pair of smart glasses, or an advanced VR headset, would be a lot more advanced.

iPhone-powered, of course (optionally)

Qualcomm's AR and VR plans have been telegraphing the next wave of headsets: Many of them will be driven by phones. Phone-powered headsets can be lower-weight and just have key onboard cameras and sensors to measure movement and capture information, while the phone does the heavy lifting and doesn't drain headset battery life. 

Apple's star device is the iPhone, and it's already loaded with advanced chipsets that can do tons of AR and computer vision computation. It could already handle powering an AR headset now; imagine what could happen in another year or two.

Apple could also have its own custom chip in its VR or AR headsets, but they'd be likely to dovetail with more advanced processors in its phones and tablets.

apple-iphones

Apple's iPhones are likely to be the engine.

Angela Lang/CNET

A world of QR codes, and location-aware objects

Apple's iOS 14 already has QR code and NFC-enabled App Clips that can launch experiences from real-world locations with a tap or scan. These micro apps are made to work with AR, too: With glasses or an AR headset, they could eventually launch interactions at a glance.

Maybe QR codes can help accelerate AR working in the "dumb" world. Apple's latest iPhones also have a mysterious U1 chip that can be used to improve accuracy in AR object placement, and also to more quickly locate other Apple devices that have the U1 chip, too.

Apple's long-expected tracker tiles could be arriving this year, with features similar to Samsung's upcoming SmartTags Plus that use similar ultrawideband technology. These tags could be seen via an iPhone app using AR, which could possibly extend into Apple's future VR/AR headsets. If all Apple's objects recognize each other, they could act as beacons in a home. The U1 chips could also be indoor navigation tools for added precision.

Apple's depth-sensing hardware is already here

Apple is already deeply invested in camera arrays that can sense the world from short and long distances. The front-facing TrueDepth camera on every Face ID iPhone since the X is like a shrunken-down Microsoft Kinect and can scan a few feet out, sensing 3D information with high enough accuracy to be used for a secure face scan. Apple's lidar technology on its recent iPhones and iPads can scan out much further, several meters away. That's the range that glasses would need. 

Apple's existing lidar technology, combined with cameras, is already good enough to scan environments and 3D objects. iPadOS 14 uses the lidar scanner to build out even more advanced depth features and room-meshing, and looks like the missing link to build a new wave of even more realistic AR graphics from Apple. 

Add to this the wider-scale lidar scanning Apple is doing in Maps to enable overlays of real-world locations with virtual objects via a technology called Location Anchors, and suddenly it seems like the depth-scanning Apple is introducing could expand to worldwide ambitions.

Apple's new Mac chips already point towards VR/AR compatibility

The latest M1-enabled Macs are now a lot more like Apple's iPhones and iPads, which means they're technically a lot more capable of the power needed to run AR and VR. Developing a common groundwork across devices could allow a headset to feasibly run on an iPhone, iPad or Mac, making it a universal Apple device accessory.

That would be pretty essential, if Apple intends on its VR or AR headsets to have any role in creative workflows, or be used for games or apps. It's one of the limitations of existing VR headsets, which need to run off particular Windows gaming PCs, and still don't play well with iOS or Android phones.

19-airpods-2nd-generation

AirPods went from absurd to essential. Can Apple do the same for smart glasses?

Sarah Tew/CNET

Look to AirPods for ease of use -- and audio augmented reality

I've thought about how AirPods and their instant-on comfort, and weird design, was an early experiment on how wearing Apple's hardware directly on our faces could be accepted and become normal. AirPods are expensive compared to in-box wired buds, but also utilitarian. They're relaxed. Apple's possible headsets would need to feel the same way.

The AirPod Pros' spatial audio in iOS 14, which AirPods Max also have, points to where future ideas could head. Immersive audio is casual, and we do it all the time. Immersive video is hard and not always needed. I could see AR working as an audio-first approach, like a ping. Apple glasses could potentially do the world-scanning spatial awareness that would allow the spatial audio to work. In the meantime, Apple's already developing the spatial audio tech that its VR headset would need.

apple-watch-5-nav

Somehow, the watch and the glasses need to work together for navigation and other apps.

Scott Stein/CNET

Apple Watch and AirPods could be great companions

Apple's already got a collection of wearable devices that connect with the iPhone, and both make sense with glasses. Its AirPods can pair for audio (although maybe the glasses have their own Bose Frames-like audio, too), while the watch could be a helpful remote control. The Apple Watch already acts as a remote at times, for the Apple TV, or linking up with the iPhone camera. Apple's future headsets could also look to the watch and expand its display virtually, offering enhanced extras that show up discreetly, like a halo. Or use the watch as some sort of controller.

The Apple Watch could also provide something that it'll be hard to get from hand gestures or touch-sensitive frames on a pair of glasses: haptics. The rumbling feedback on the Watch could lend some tactile response to virtual things, possibly.

Could Qualcomm and Apple's reconciliation also be about XR?

Qualcomm and Apple are working together again on future iPhones, and I don't think it's just about modems. 5G is a key feature for phones, no doubt. But it's also a killer element for next-gen AR and VR. Qualcomm has already been exploring how remote rendering could allow 5G-enabled phones and connected glasses to link up to streaming content and cloud-connected location data. Glasses could eventually stand on their own and use 5G to do advanced computing, in a way like the Apple Watch eventually working over cellular.

Qualcomm's chipsets are in almost every self-contained AR and VR headset I can think of (Oculus Quest, HoloLens 2, a wave of new smart glasses, the latest version of Google Glass, Vive Focus). Apple's hardware will likely interface with some of Qualcomm's emerging XR tools, too.

10-nreal-mixed-reality-glasses

There are other AR devices out there, like the nReal Light. Apple needs to open up iOS to work with them, like fitness trackers and smartwatches.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Launch date: 2022, 2023... or later?

New Apple products tend to be announced months before they arrive, maybe even more. The iPhone, Apple Watch, HomePod and iPad all followed this path. 

A report from The Information from 2019, based on reported leaked Apple presentational material, suggested 2022 for an Oculus Quest-like AR/VR headset, and 2023 for glasses. Maybe Apple takes a staggered strategy with AR, and releases several devices: One for creators first, with a higher price, and one for everyday wearers later. 

Either way, developers would need a long head start to get used to developing for Apple's glasses, and making apps work and flow with whatever Apple's design guidance will be. That's going to require Apple giving heads-up on its hardware well in advance of its actual arrival. 

We still don't know anything more yet, but the future still seems farther off than we expected.