Someone Is Working on an iOS Powered Stereo AR Headset

Photo: Tony Avelar (AP)

Apple’s iPhone event on Tuesday came and went without any mention of the tech giant’s plans for augmented reality, but iOS 13 code dug up by developer Steve Troughton-Smith appears to reference a “Starboard” framework for stereo AR, per 9to5Mac, and stereo AR means AR glasses.

It’s not clear what kind of device Apple might be working on—possibilities range from long-rumored “Apple Glasses” to a product like Google’s Daydream, which mounts a phone onto the user’s face. The Starboard readme discovered by Troughton-Smith seems to instruct developers on how to run stereo AR apps without using a device named “Garta,” which could be that Apple AR gear or something else.

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The code, with references to Starboard and Garta, was first reported on last week by MacRumors and Troughton-Smith’s discovery appears to confirm that report. He found the code in the iOS 13 Golden Master, as well as the 13.1 beta 3.(Apple began seeding the golden master to developers this week.)

Troughton-Smith wrote on Twitter that the code also contains a “gamepad profile for a device meant to be used while using stereo AR apps,” and the StarBoardServices framework “seems to attach a UIScene to the OS much like CarPlay or an external display might.” Those two factors led Smith to ponder whether Apple is testing stereo AR that’s rendered on an iPhone itself with a handheld controller attached.

Which could very well be possible—especially if the hardware necessary for a glasses isn’t yet ready and the company needs to start working on apps. Think the developer consoles seeded to game developers well ahead of the finale game consoles. They’re typically hacked together products that focus on behaving like the final product even if they look nothing like it.

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Apple Insider explains that the readme file in question appears to refer to switching displaying content “in and out of HME mode,” with the “Garta” configuration possibly referring to physical headset in question:

More interesting is a read me file that runs through procedures for testing stereo AR apps on iPhone, a contingency apparently made for employees who do not have access to the headset. The file notes internal iOS builds come with a “STARTester” app that can switch its displayable content in and out of HME mode when used with another asset called “starboardct1.”

Setting the system state to a “worn” HME configuration, for example a prototype dubbed “Garta,” will apply distortions associated with that device. Setting the state back to “held” returns the app back to “normal” mode, which is assumedly typical 2D rendering.

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It’s not clear what an HME is. VR headsets are frequently called HMDs, or head-mounted displays. Given Apple’s love for “experiences”, an HME could be a “head-mounted experience.”

There’s still nothing official here, and the presence of the code doesn’t mean that Apple’s device is right around the corner (even if it is not referring to an unfinished prototype or compatibility for a third-party device). As Apple Insider noted, analysts expected the company to launch an AR headset in 2020, but reports in July indicated that the project was put on indefinite hold.

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If you know more details about Apple’s AR hardware you can contact us via SecureDrop or drop me a line.

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Tom McKay

"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post