Are Apple and Zeiss Working on Augmented-Reality Glasses?

From a patent filed by Apple in 2008. Photo: Apple, Zeiss

For the past few years, Apple has been filing patents and staffing up on engineers who specialize in augmented reality (AR), virtual reality’s more sophisticated cousin. (AR technology, like that seen in Pokémon Go, places computer-generated imagery onto the real world, unlike VR, which replaces your field of vision entirely.) Now, tech blogger Robert Scoble says he’s got confirmation Apple and high-end optics company Zeiss AG will be releasing AR glasses — this year.

To put some caveats up front: This is based off one Facebook post by Scoble. And Robert Scoble has a history of being, um, unreasonably passionate about new tech, and specifically tech-enabled eyewear.

But unnamed Zeiss staffers at CES aside, there is evidence to support Apple is serious about AR.

First off, CEO Tim Cook has given several enthusiastic, public quotes about the technology, saying he sees it as much more viable than virtual reality. At a tech conference in Utah this October, Cook said he thinks AR will become part of the fabric of everyday life. “I do think that a significant portion of the population of developed countries, and eventually all countries, will have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day, it will become that much a part of you,” said Cook. “AR is going to take a while, because there are some really hard technology challenges there. But it will happen, it will happen in a big way, and we will wonder when it does, how we ever lived without it. Like we wonder how we lived without our phone today.”

And during an interview with Good Morning America in September, he similarly enthused: “My own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far, because this gives the capability for both of us to sit and be very present talking to each other, but also have other things visually for both of us to see …”

Finally, in an earnings call in July, Cook used the success of Pokémon Go to talk more broadly about AR: “It also does show that AR can be really great. We have been and continue to invest a lot in this. We are high on AR for the long run; we think there’s great things for customers and a great commercial opportunity.”

Then there’s the number of patents that Apple has filed. Apple (and all tech companies) file tech patents on a very regular basis, many of which never see the light of day. But some of the big ones in the past year include those for a way to use the iPhone’s sensors to overlay information on top of live video; a way for a phone to place itself in 3-D space using the phone’s camera; and a patent for some very goofball glasses that Apple filed way back in 2008 and has been continuously updating since.

Last, Apple has acquired key AR companies and hired hundreds of staffers and engineers who specialize in augmented reality and virtual reality, including engineers from Oculus Rift and Magic Leap.

Beyond Scoble’s Facebook post, there’s no indication that Apple is planning on partnering with Zeiss (though Zeiss has worked with Apple in the past), or that any Apple AR product will hit market this year. And Apple also has a history of of pouring resources into projects, such as its self-driving car, before deciding to scale back its ambitions.

Still, virtual reality was supposed to really break out 2016. It didn’t. While a number of VR headsets launched last year, you can’t call any of them an unqualified success. So there’s little indication that Apple will end up stepping into the arena of virtual reality — but it has all those VR and AR researchers working in Cupertino now.

If Apple does end up in the business of putting digitally created imagery right in front of your eyeballs, safe money is that it will end up being in the field of augmented reality.

Are Apple and Zeiss Working on Augmented-Reality Glasses?