Apple buys start-up focused on lenses for AR glasses

Apple last year launched AR applications for its iPhones and iPads, and chief executive Tim Cook has called augmented reality a "big and profound" technology development.
Apple last year launched AR applications for its iPhones and iPads, and chief executive Tim Cook has called augmented reality a "big and profound" technology development.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Move signals its aims to make wearable device that'll superimpose digital info on real world

Apple has acquired a start-up focused on making lenses for augmented reality (AR) glasses, the company confirmed on Wednesday, a signal that it has ambitions to make a wearable device that would superimpose digital information on the real world.

In confirming it has acquired Colorado-based Akonia Holographics, the iPhone maker said in a statement: "Apple buys smaller companies from time to time, and we generally don't discuss our purpose or plans."

Akonia could not immediately be reached for comment. The company was founded in 2012 by a group of holography scientists and had originally focused on holographic data storage before shifting its efforts to creating displays for AR glasses, according to its website.

In augmented reality, digital information is overlaid on the real world as in the popular game Pokemon Go. Mobile phones use their camera system to do this on the phone's screen, but major technology firms are racing to create glasses that will show digital information on transparent lenses.

Akonia said its display technology allows for "thin, transparent smart glass lenses that display vibrant, full-colour, wide field-of-view images". The firm has a portfolio of more than 200 patents related to holographic systems and materials, according to its website.

Akonia said it raised US$11.6 million (S$15.8 million) in seed funding in 2012 and was seeking additional funds. It is unclear whether that funding ever materialised or who its investors are.

Akonia said its display technology allows for "thin, transparent smart glass lenses that display vibrant, full-colour, wide field-of-view images". The firm has a portfolio of more than 200 patents related to holographic systems and materials, according to its website.

The purchase price and date of the acquisition could not be learnt, although one executive in the AR industry said the Akonia team had become "very quiet" over the past six months, implying that the deal may have happened in the first half of this year.

Apple has a history of buying smaller companies whose technologies show up years later in its products. In 2013, the tech giant acquired a small Israeli firm called PrimeSense that made three-dimensional sensors. The iPhone X, launched last year, used a similar sensor to power facial recognition features.

Bloomberg last year reported that Apple was developing AR glasses that could ship as early as 2020. Apple declined to comment on its plans or products.

But the company last year launched AR applications for its iPhones and iPads, and chief executive Tim Cook has called augmented reality a "big and profound" technology development.

"This is one of those huge things that we'll look back at and marvel on the start of it," Mr Cook said of AR technology during a conference call with investors last year.

The Akonia acquisition is the first clear indication of how Apple might handle one of the most daunting challenges in AR hardware: Producing crystal-clear optical displays thin and light enough to fit into glasses similar to everyday frames - with images bright enough for outdoor use and suited to mass manufacturing at a relatively low price.

AR headsets currently on the market, such as Microsoft's HoloLense and start-up Magic Leap's Magic Leap One, both use darkened lenses and are intended for indoor use. Both are also intended for software developers testing the technology and cost several thousand dollars.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2018, with the headline 'Apple buys start-up focused on lenses for AR glasses'. Print Edition | Subscribe