Apple exploring digital glasses idea

CUPERTINO (California) • Apple is weighing an expansion into digital glasses, a risky but potentially lucrative area of wearable computing, according to people familiar with the matter.

While still in an exploration phase, the device would connect wirelessly to iPhones, show images and other information in the wearer's field of vision, and may use augmented reality, the people said.

Apple has talked about its glasses project with potential suppliers, according to people familiar with those discussions. The company has ordered small quantities of near-eye displays from one supplier for testing, the people said.

Apple has not ordered enough components so far to indicate imminent mass-production, one of the people added.

Should Apple ultimately decide to proceed with the device, it would be introduced in 2018 at the earliest, another person said. 

The company tests many different products and is known to pivot, pause, or cancel projects without disclosing them. Apple spokesman Trudy Muller declined to comment.

Chief executive officer Tim Cook is under pressure to deliver new products amid slowing sales of the iPhone, which accounts for two-thirds of Apple's revenue.

In July, he expressed enthusiasm for augmented reality after the rise of Pokemon Go, a location-based game that uses the technology. AR, as it is known, adds images and other digital information to people's view of the real world, while virtual reality completely surrounds them with a computer-generated environment.

The glasses may be Apple's first hardware product targeted directly at AR, one of the people said.

Mr Cook has beefed up AR capabilities through acquisitions. In 2013, Apple bought PrimeSense, which developed motion-sensing technology in Microsoft's Kinect gaming system. Purchases of software start-ups in the field, Metaio and Flyby Media, followed last year and this year.

"AR can be really great, and we have been and continue to invest a lot in this," Mr Cook said in a July 26 conference call with analysts. "We are high on AR for the long run. We think there are great things for customers and a great commercial opportunity."

Apple has AR patents for things like street view in mapping apps. It was also awarded patents for smart glasses that make use of full-fledged virtual reality.

Apple's challenge is fitting all the technology needed into a useful pair of Internet-connected glasses that are small and sleek enough for regular people to wear.

Google's attempt to develop Internet-connected eye wear flopped in part because its tiny battery ran out quickly. Google Glass, as it was called, also suffered a privacy backlash and poor public perception of its external design.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2016, with the headline 'Apple exploring digital glasses idea'. Print Edition | Subscribe