Can Apple's digital spectacles avoid the pitfalls of Google Glass?

Apple says it is committed to augmented reality and is reported to be considering expansion into wearable, digital glasses that would connect wirelessly to the iPhone.

Richard Drew/AP
Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook responds to a question during a 2015 news conference at IBM Watson headquarters, in New York.

Apple Inc. is rumored to be exploring an avenue into developing digital glasses, a risky venture into augmented reality that could yield a big payoff for the company if it’s successful.

Past forays into AR have seen companies come up short and shift their focus to virtual reality projects. While Google has attempted to tackle the technology in 2013 with its own Google Glass, the project ultimately failed, succumbing to low battery life, an unattractive design, and privacy backlash. To succeed in the market, Apple will have to create a sleek design that allows users to access what the company has to offer.

Stepping into the less-charted market of wearable technology isn’t the safest of moves. But if Apple can roll out a product that fills the gaps Google Glass left, it could become a leader in AR.

Still, developing that technology “is going to take a while, because there are some really hard technology challenges there, but it will happen in a big way, and we will wonder when it does, how we ever lived without it,” Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook said last month, Bloomberg reported. “Like we wonder how we lived without our phone today."

Sources close to the project told Bloomberg that the device would connect to iPhones wirelessly to reveal images and information in the glasses’ lenses. The devices, which could also use AR, remain in a developmental and experimental phase, and Apple has not yet ordered enough parts to indicate that they’re ready to begin producing the product for commercial sale.

Even with a renewed vision for the product, it’s hard to say whether Apple can surpass Google’s clumsy endeavor. Chips, batteries, and other parts needed to build the glasses might still be too large and bulky to create a better design than Google Glass. While VR headsets have entered the market, along with a HoloLens AR product from Microsoft, many companies have hit a wall when it comes to developing sophisticated and practical AR technologies.

But another, more surprising company has announced a foray into the field as well: Snap Inc., the creator of Snapchat,. The company debuted “Spectacles,” a pair of sunglasses capable of capturing short videos, in September. The more stylish, and less expensive glasses – with a ticket price of $129.99 compared to Google Glass’s $1,500 – have made the technology more appealing and attainable recently.

The soonest Apple could unveil its own glasses would be in 2018, sources say. Still, some don’t believe Apple has the capacity to become a leader in the technology, and question what role the company will play in charting new routes in the future.

“Apple has a track record of taking not-entirely-original and niche ideas and transforming them into something grander,” Shira Ovide wrote in an op-ed for Livemint. “We might look back at 2016 as a lull before a storm of ground-breaking product categories. More likely, though, Apple’s days as technology’s unrivaled innovation factory are over.”

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