Could Apple Be Ready to Announce iGlasses?

Imagine it: at tomorrow’s “special event” in Cupertino tomorrow, Apple CEO Tim Cook takes the stage and–after announcing the iPhone 6 and the breathlessly awaited iWatch–turns to the audience and says: “Oh, and one more thing ….”  Then he pulls a pair of slick, white spectacles out of a velvety bag and says, “we’re also coming out with this pair of augmented reality glasses we call iGlasses.”

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Apple’s patent number 8212859

Admittedly, this is an exceedingly unlikely scenario. But only because we haven’t heard hardly anything about iGlasses yet.  Apple’s “surprise” announcements are typically preceded by months, of not years, of carefully orchestrated “leaks” and news commentators falling over themselves to predict the new device’s every detail.  By the time we see the real thing, those who read any sort of news outlet feel like it’s almost old news. And that’s the exact scenario we find ourselves in now with the iWatch.  Speculated for years but never officially confirmed, the world nevertheless takes it as a given that we’re going to see Tim Cook unveil this device tomorrow. We even know–“reportedly,” of course–that the watch will “have a flexible screen and come in two sizes, will track its wearer’s health and fitness, double as an electronic wallet and of course, display messages.”

But the intentional air of mystery surrounding the event always leaves the press guessing: could we see “unexpected products … [like]  a peek at a long-awaited Apple television, a rumored bigger iPad or a completely unexpected product?”

If that were to happen, the best possible scenario would be an announcement of AR glasses. And it’s not an unrealistic expectation. To the contrary, it’s inevitable that we’ll see iGlasses at some point. Smartech Markets Publishing predicts the AR industry to exceed $2 billion in revenue by 2020, and to surpass $5 billion just two years later. Tomi Ahonen,  an oft-quoted consultant and author of twelve books on the mobile industry, predicts 1 billion users of AR across the globe by 2020, with that number climbing to 2.5 billion by 2023. Why wouldn’t Apple want to dominate that market?

We also know Apple has been eyeing the technology since at least 2006, if not longer. In US patent number 8212859, “Peripheral treatment for head-mounted displays”, it outlines “projecting a source image in a head-mounted display apparatus for a user” to deliver “an enhanced viewing experience” for her or him. In other words: smart glasses.  Only a little over a year ago, Apple caused a buzz in the AR community by obtaining US Patent No. 8,400,548 for “Synchronized, interactive augmented reality displays for multifunction devices.” C|net described this as going “a few steps further” than Google Glass by allowing users to digitally annotate their physical surroundings. Indeed, a search today in the Google Patents database for +”Apple, Inc.” +”augmented reality” produces “about 22,300 results.” And it was recently revealed that two of Apple’s most recent patent applications describe an augmented reality navigation system for iPhones.

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Apple’s Patent No. 8,400,548

It would also be brilliant timing from a commercial perspective. Google has already broken the ice and created the genre of digital eyewear with Glass. As a result of being first, however, Glass has (unfairly, IMHO) taken a lot of flak from a public (again, IMHO, unfairly) up in arms about “privacy,” geeky appearance, and other concerns.The dozen or more competitors that have followed in Glass’s wake–from startups to titans like Microsoft–however, guarantee that such devices are gong to be around for the long haul (just this past weekend, another pair of smart glasses hit Kickstarter, and the Wall Street Journal broke the news about Daqri’s Smart Helmet). So Apple is going to have to get in this game eventually. Acting now would let Apple sidestep the controversy that Glass has already created, yet be early enough that it still sets the bar in the genre.

Newest (and slickest) kid on the block: Daqri's Smart Helmet

Newest (and slickest) kid on the block: Daqri’s Smart Helmet

Plus, Apple’s entry into the field would finally bring AR eyewear solidly into the mainstream. Everything Apple has done in the last 15 years has been an enormous success. Apple’s cache ensures that hundreds of millions of people will buy their devices, and their attention to user experience means that the interface will be clean, attractive, and intuitive. The momentum created by such a move would finally unlike the private investment, and provide the software platform, that the brilliant minds within the AR industry needs to make their visions of the future a reality.

So here’s hoping that Tim Cook surprises us all with what he wears tomorrow–not on his wrist, but on his face.