Last month Patently Apple posted a report titled “Facebook is determined to stay ahead of Apple on HMDs and Win the Race on being first with Smartglasses to replace Smartphones.” With Facebook remaining at the forefront of the next-wave of computers in the form of smartglasses and HMDs, Apple wanted the news out about what they’ve up to on this front made public. Nine days later a story broke about Apple’s position and we covered in a report titled “Apple’s Secretive Technology Development Group is working on both AR Glasses and an Advanced HMD with a Stunning Display.”
In the latter report we learned about two key Apple products in development relating to next-gen glasses and/or HMDs. One of the products was dubbed the N421 project which focused on a lightweight pair of glasses using AR only that would allow Apple’s messages and Map apps to be seen in an augmented way over the reality of what the user sees through the glasses. Perhaps something a little more advanced than Alphabet’s recently acquired Focals from North.
Apple’s headset and glasses team led by Mike Rockwell had also been working on a headset that would revolutionize Head Mounted Display systems and offer breakthrough features far beyond Facebook’s Oculus line of headsets. The project was dubbed the N301 project. It was designed to be the best of both VR and AR to deliver an all-encompassing digital experience for gaming and consuming content.
It was designed to feature ultra-high-resolution screens that will make it almost impossible for a user to differentiate the virtual world from the real one. A cinematic speaker system will make the experience even more realistic, people who have used prototypes say.
Rockwell’s team planned to sell a stationary hub, which in prototype form resembled a small Mac, that would connect to the headset with a wireless signal. In other words Apple had developed a next-gen gaming console for VR gaming that would have crushed Microsoft’s Xbox X Series and Sony’s PS5.
At the time Jony Ive still in the drivers seat at Apple for hardware and he gave the project a thumbs down and veto’d it. The question now is, with Jony Ive having retired, could Apple’s project N301 continue? Gaming fans around the world are fully aware of gaming consoles so the Ive’s objection is seen as odd unless the price was that of a Mac in the $1800 to $3500 range.
The pricing for the “stationary hub” or console was never revealed, so it’s difficult to understand the objection. For now the project is reportedly off the table, but one never knows if it could resurrect without making that public until it’s brought to market.
Days later Patently Apple broke the news that Apple had filed for a patent related to modular smartglasses that would contain a great number of senses and feature built in the arms of the glasses frame. It was a model that would make slipping in prescription glasses a breeze. You could review our report titled “Apple Patent illustrates Future Smartglasses Offering a Modular Design allowing users to exchange parts for Different Functionality” here.
With Apple stealing the headset buzz from Facebook, it appears that they wanted the regain the upper hand over Apple and revealed a new headset design that was made for mobility and one that although in the form of sunglasses, could pack a visual punch only dreamed of in a glasses package before.
Below is a brief peek at Facebook’s next-gen Holographic Display in action for their future VR Glasses.
The design is demonstrated in a proof-of-concept research device that uses only thin, flat films as optics to achieve a display thickness of less than 9 mm while supporting a field of view comparable to today’s consumer VR products.
The work demonstrates the promise of better visual performance, as well: Laser illumination is used to deliver a much wider gamut of colors to VR displays, and progress is made toward scaling resolution to the limit of human vision. The next step is to advance it to color as noted below.
Facebook’s research team noted that today’s VR displays have three primary components: a source of light (e.g., LEDs), a display panel that brightens or dims the light to form an image (e.g., an LCD panel), and a viewing optic that focuses the image far enough away so that the viewer’s eyes can see it (e.g., a plastic lens).
As the first two components can readily be formed into thin and flat modules, most of the weight and volume go into the viewing optics. To significantly reduce the overall size and weight of VR displays, we combine two techniques: holographic optics and polarization-based optical folding.
Most VR displays share a common viewing optic: a simple refractive lens composed of a thick, curved piece or glass or plastic. We propose replacing this bulky element with holographic optics. You may be familiar with holographic images seen at a science museum or on your credit card, which appear to be three-dimensional with realistic depth in or out of the page.
Like these holographic images, our holographic optics are a recording of the interaction of laser light with objects, but in this case the object is a lens rather than a 3D scene. The result is a dramatic reduction in thickness and weight: The holographic optic bends light like a lens but looks like a thin, transparent sticker.
While it’s still in Facebook’s lab, I found it interesting that they wanted to share this information only after the news of what Apple’s Research team was up to. Is Facebook wanting to stay hungry and ahead of Apple on this technological front? Yes, at the moment it appears that way. However, that could all change in the blink of an eye if Apple ever decided to unleash their N301 beast first.
Stay tuned as this race is only beginning.