(Antfer) #1

T E C H N O L O G Y


2


16


Edited by
Katrina Nicholas

In late 2018, Apple Inc. was a few years into its plan
to build a powerful headset with both virtual- and
augmented-reality capabilities when things shifted
dramatically. Jony Ive, then the company’s design
chief, objected to some fundamental aspects of the
product and urged Apple to change course.
The headset was to be the first major launch
from the company since the Apple Watch and the
debut device from the Technology Development
Group, a secretive unit devoted to VR and AR. The
TDG is led by an equally under-the-radar executive,
Mike Rockwell. After stints at Dolby Laboratories
Inc. and media-editing-software company Avid
Technology Inc., Rockwell, 53, was hired in 2015 by
Dan Riccio, Apple’s top hardware executive. At first
his role was loosely defined, according to inter-
views with current and former employees who
asked not to be identified discussing internal mat-
ters. Representatives for Apple and Ive declined to
comment, and the company didn’t make Rockwell
available for an interview.

He started building his team in late 2015, and
what grew into a 1,000-strong group of engineers
went to work developing two products aimed at
upending the VR and AR segments. A device code-
named N301 would take the best of both VR and
AR—the first an all-encompassing digital experience
for gaming and consuming content, and the sec-
ond a tool for overlaying information such as text
messages and maps in front of a viewer. The other
device, N421, a lightweight pair of glasses usingAR
only,is morecomplex.
N301wasinitiallydesigned tobeanultra-
powerful system, with graphics and process-
ing speeds previously unheard of for a wearable
product. The processing capabilities were so
advanced—and produced so much heat—that the
technology couldn’t be crammed into a sleek head-
set. Instead, Rockwell’s team planned to sell a sta-
tionary hub, which in prototype form resembled
a small Mac, that would connect to the headset
with a wireless signal. In Rockwell’s early version,
the headset would also be able to operate in a less
powerful independent mode.
Ive balked at the prospect of selling a headset
that would require a separate, stationary device
for full functionality. He encouraged Rockwell and
his team to redevelop N301 around the less power-
ful technology that could be embedded entirely in
the device. Rockwell pushed back, arguing that a
wireless hub would enable performance so supe-
rior that it would blow anything else on the market
out of the water. The standoff lasted for months.
Rockwell is highly respected at Apple, with a

Bloomberg Businessweek June 29, 2020

● Mike Rockwell’s team is
developing superpowerful
headsets blending AR and VR

Inside Apple’s


Next Big Thing


ILLUSTRATION BY SOPHI GULLBRANTS