Apple has acquired a start-up making “holographic smart glass”, in the latest sign that an “augmented reality” headset is still in the works as a potential successor to the iPhone.

The acquisition of Akonia Holographics is one of several small deals and hires in recent years that have pointed to Apple’s broader ambitions in a sector that is a growing focus for technology companies.

AR has been popularised on smartphones by games such as Pokémon Go and the messaging platform Snapchat, but Apple has had a secret team working on “smart glasses” using similar technology for more than two years, people familiar with the matter have said. 

After buying Israeli computer vision company PrimeSense in 2013, Apple’s investment picked up through 2015 and 2016 with the acquisitions of Metaio and FlyBy Media, respectively. The iPhone maker has also hired leading engineers that had previously worked on Microsoft’s HoloLens project and at Magic Leap, the US start-up that has raised $2bn even before it has launched its first product.

Some of those technologies have already made their way into the iPhone via features such as “animoji”, which turns a user’s facial expressions into an animated cartoon character. ARKit, introduced in 2017, allows iPhone app developers to “place” virtual objects on surfaces in the real world, when viewed through the window of the smartphone’s camera and screen. 

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has described AR as a “profound” innovation that could one day be as big as the smartphone. “We put a lot of energy in AR, and it’s moving very fast,” he said in response to an analyst’s question on February’s earnings call. “I don’t want to say what we may do, but I couldn’t be happier with how things are going right now.”

The team that founded Colorado-based Akonia had its origins in Bell Labs in the 1990s, ploughing tens of millions of dollars into research and development before the start-up was founded with $11.6m in seed funding in August 2012.

Akonia describes itself on its website as “the world leader in systems and materials for holography”. It has more than 200 patents including for lightweight, low-cost lenses that would form part of AR glasses. 

“We believe we can solve the problem of the eyeglass that sits in front of your eyeball,” chief executive Ken Anderson told VentureBeat in a 2016 interview, saying it could develop a “thin, transparent eyepiece that provides good display performance at a reasonable cost”. 

Developing new kinds of lenses and displays for AR has been a key challenge for companies investing in the area, including Facebook with its Oculus VR unit, Microsoft and Magic Leap, which recently launched its first product aimed at early adopters and developers. 

Magic Leap One and Microsoft’s Hololens have faced criticism for their high cost, bulky size and narrow field of view, which means virtual objects only appear in a small window-like area. 

Apple often combines in-house technological developments with acquisitions that can accelerate a new product’s speed to market. However, observers believe any Apple glasses are at least two years away from being launched. 

The iPhone maker confirmed its purchase of Akonia, which was first reported by Reuters, but declined to comment further, saying: “Apple buys smaller companies from time to time, and we generally don’t discuss our purpose or plans.”

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