Apple’s augmented reality vision is coming into focus. On Thursday, the United States Patent and Trademark Office published an application submitted by the company for an eye-tracking system for a head-mounted display. The application describes ways this could be used to interact with content based on where the user is looking, and similar technology has been proposed as a way of boosting graphics quality.
It’s a big step forward for CEO Tim Cook’s vision of an augmented reality future, one that he said in June 2017 “makes me want to yell out and scream.” Recent reports suggest the company is working on a headset under the codename “T288”. The headset, rumored to run an operating system called “rOS,” is intended to play back 3D content in a package with respectable battery life, potentially launching in 2020. In Apple’s patent, a headset would use near-infrared cameras on either side of the wearer’s face, emitting infrared light and bouncing it off a mirror to allow the camera to track movement.
The patent suggests the eye position data could be used for “gaze-based interaction with content shown on the near-eye display of the [head-mounted display].” Another potential application not outlined in the patent is foveated rendering. This technology increases the details in parts of a 3D scene that the wearer is focusing on, blurring other areas the reduce the strain on graphics hardware and increasing quality. It was one of the technologies touted by Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash in October 2016 as one of the big changes coming to virtual reality over the next five years.
Apple has doubled down on its support for augmented reality in recent years. iOS 11, a free software update that launched last year, brings a set of developer tools called “ARKit” that makes it easier for app makers to produce AR-supported games for the iPhone 6S and later. Cook proclaimed augmented reality, which mixes a view of the real world with virtual objects, as an ideal technology for maintaining human contact.
Cook is expected to speak at Apple’s Worldwide Developers’ Conference on June 4, where he will likely outline the company’s coming software updates for the fall. iOS 12, expected to bring features like universal apps that also run on Macs, may boost the platform’s augmented reality capabilities.
Apple has a vision of the future, and it’s looking augmented.