With Tim Cook as CEO, Apple has become the most valuable company in the world, having passed a $3 trillion market cap in the past and sitting at around $2.6 trillion as of this writing. For all of his nearly 12 years as the head of the company, though, there hasn't been one single product tied to him the way the iPhone, iPad, and revitalized Mac computers are so inextricably linked to Steve Jobs.
But while Cook's impact on the company has largely been in his operational mastery and the massive pay-off of his strategy in pivoting to services, he's consistently found time to talk about one platform as potentially game-changing without fully committing to the tech through actual new product releases: augmented reality.
That was despite Cook's denigrations of early AR headgear like Google Glass. This would become a running theme: AR good, VR not so good. In September 2021, he went as far as to call himself “AR fan number one.” Although he once called virtual reality “really cool,” he's also said it's “for set periods, but not a way to communicate well” while taking swipes at the metaverse in an interview last year.
Now, on the eve of a presumed announcement of Apple's new “Reality Pro” mixed reality headset, it's much easier to see where it was all going. The company has been slowly integrating the technology that will presumably breathe life into the new device for years, adding AR features to its iPhone and iPads that, while none of it has ever made more than a momentary splash, may have been crucial development experience for Apple.
One example is the 2019 Minecraft Earth demo at WWDC that showed a hint of Apple's capabilities without tipping its hand about any new hardware. As you'll see in his various comments from 2016 onward, while Cook mentions gaming, it sounds like his vision for the Reality Pro is much broader, viewing it as a collaborative technology consistent with Apple's overall philosophy about creating tech that integrates with your life.
Here's a brief history of all the times Tim Cook said he was convinced AR was the future.
July 2016: Cook says in a quarterly earnings call that “AR can be really great.”
We have been and continue to invest a lot in this. We are high on AR for the long run, we think there's great things for customers and a great commercial opportunity. The number one thing is to make sure our products work well with other developers' kind of products like Pokémon, that's why you see so many iPhones in the wild chasing pokemons.
(Cook pronounces it “pokey-mans.”)
September 2016: Cook tells Good Morning America in an interview that he believes AR is a bigger deal than VR.
There's virtual reality and there's augmented reality — both of these are incredibly interesting. But my own view is that augmented reality is the larger of the two, probably by far.
[AR] gives the capability for both of us to sit and be very present, talking to each other, but also have other things — visually — for both of us to see. Maybe it's something we're talking about, maybe it's someone else here who's not here present but who can be made to appear to be present.
There's a lot of really cool things there.
August 2016: Cook makes a brief mention of AR in a Washington Post profile:
I think AR [augmented reality] is extremely interesting and sort of a core technology. So, yes, it's something we're doing a lot of things on behind that curtain that we talked about.
October 2016: In an appearance at Utah Tech Tour, Cook goes into detail about how crucial AR may become and why he views it as superior to VR — while stressing that AR presents significant technology challenges before it can be adopted for mass consumerism.
In terms of it becoming a mass adoption [phenomenon], so that, say, everyone in here would have an AR experience, the reality to do that, it has to be something that everyone in here views to be an “acceptable thing.”
And nobody in here, few people in here, think it's acceptable to be tethered to a computer walking in here and sitting down, few people are going to view that it's acceptable to be enclosed in something, because we're all social people at heart. Even introverts are social people, we like people and we want to interact. It has to be that it's likely that AR, of the two, is the one the largest number of people will engage with.
I do think that a significant portion of the population of developed countries, and eventually all countries, will have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day, it will become that much a part of you, a lot of us live on our smartphones, the iPhone, I hope, is very important for everyone, so AR will become really big. VR I think is not going to be that big, compared to AR. I'm not saying it's not important, it is important.
I'm excited about VR from an education point of view, I think it can be really big for education, I think it can be very big for games. But I can't imagine everyone in here getting in an enclosed VR experience while you're sitting in here with me. But I could imagine everyone in here in an AR experience right now, if the technology was there, which it's not today. How long will it take?
AR is going to take a while, because there are some really hard technology challenges there. But it will happen, it will happen in a big way, and we will wonder when it does, how we ever lived without it. Like we wonder how we lived without our phone today.
October 2016: Cook tells BuzzFeed News that while “VR has some interesting applications,” AR is superior to VR because “there's no substitute for human contact. And so you want the technology to encourage that.”
Augmented reality will take some time to get right, but I do think that it's profound. We might … have a more productive conversation, if both of us have an AR experience standing here, right? And so I think that things like these are better when they're incorporated without becoming a barrier to our talking. … You want the technology to amplify it, not to be a barrier.
February 2017: Cook expands his thoughts on AR's potential, adding a new comparison: AR is a big idea, like the smartphone.
I'm excited about augmented reality because unlike virtual reality which closes the world out, AR allows individuals to be present in the world but hopefully allows an improvement on what's happening presently. Most people don't want to lock themselves out from the world for a long period of time and today you can't do that because you get sick from it. With AR you can, not be engrossed in something, but have it be a part of your world, of your conversation. That has resonance.
I regard it as a big idea like the smartphone. The smartphone is for everyone, we don't have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: it's for everyone. I think AR is that big, it's huge. I get excited because of the things that could be done that could improve a lot of lives. And be entertaining. I view AR like I view the silicon here in my iPhone, it's not a product per se, it's a core technology. But there are things to discover before that technology is good enough for the mainstream. I do think there can be a lot of things that really help people out in daily life, real-life things, that's why I get so excited about it.
June 2017: In a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg News, Cook details his vision for AR at Apple:
I think it is profound. I am so excited about it, I just want to yell out and scream. The first step in making it a mainstream kind of experience is to put it in the operating system. We're building it into iOS 11, opening it to developers—and unleashing the creativity of millions of people. Even we can't predict what's going to come out.
There's some things that you can already get a vision of. We've talked to IKEA, and they have 3D images of their furniture line. You're talking about changing the whole experience of how you shop for, in this case, furniture and other objects that you can place around the home. You can take that idea and begin to think this is something that stretches from enterprise to consumer. There's not a lot of things that do that.
You'll see things happening in enterprises where AR is fundamental to what they're doing. You're going to see some consumer things that are unbelievably cool. Can we do everything we want to do now? No. The technology's not complete yet. But that's the beauty to a certain degree. This has a runway. And it's an incredible runway. It's time to put the seat belt on and go. When people begin to see what's possible, it's going to get them very excited—like we are, like we've been.
October 2017: At an event at Oxford, Cook responds to a student who asks what technology he would consider “transformative.” Cook says there are widespread uses for AR:
I'm incredibly excited by AR because I can see uses for it everywhere. I can see uses for it in education, in consumers, in entertainment, in sports. I can see it in every business that I know anything about.
I also like the fact that it doesn't isolate. I don't like our products being used a lot. I like our products amplifying thoughts and I think AR can help amplify the human connection. I've never been a fan of VR like that because I think it does the opposite. There are clearly some cool niche things for VR but it's not profound in my view. AR is profound.
October 2017: In an interview with Vogue UK, Cook says while Apple wasn't looking to build a “giant database of clothes,” it would support companies in the AR space who were doing this work.
If you think about a runway show in the fashion world, that's a great application of AR because some of these, you want to see the dress all the way around, you do not want to just see the front.
November 2017: With the introduction of its ARKit platform on iOS 11, Cook says in a quarterly earnings call that Apple has created the world's largest augmented reality platform:
There already are over a thousand apps with powerful AR features in our App Store today with developers creating amazing new experiences in virtually every category of app aimed at consumers, students and business users alike.
Put simply, we believe AR is going to change the way we use technology forever. We're already seeing things that will transform the way you work, play, connect and learn. For example, there are AR apps that you interact with virtual models of everything you can imagine from the human body to the solar system. And of course you experience them like you're really there.
Instantly education becomes much more powerful when every subject comes to life in 3D. And imagine shopping when you can place an object in your living room before you make a purchase – or attending live sporting events when you can see the stats on the field. AR is going to change everything.
This is not quite what came to pass (more on that later).
October 2017: Post-ARKit launch, Cook admits he thinks AR technology for headsets or glasses isn't yet up to par as far as Apple is concerned.
I can tell you the technology itself doesn't exist to do that in a quality way. The display technology required, as well as putting enough stuff around your face — there's huge challenges with that. The field of view, the quality of the display itself, it's not there yet.
We don't give a rat's about being first, we want to be the best, and give people a great experience. But now anything you would see on the market any time soon would not be something any of us would be satisfied with. Nor do I think the vast majority of people would be satisfied.
Most technology challenges can be solved, but it's a matter of how long.
February 2018: During Apple's Q1 earnings call, Cook described “great excitement” around augmented reality among customers.
Augmented reality is going to revolutionize many of the experiences we have with mobile devices, and with ARKit, we're giving developers the most advanced tools on the market to create apps for the most advanced operating system running on the most advanced hardware. This is something only Apple can do.
October 2018: Cook tells NowThisNews during an interview about Apple's Watch that AR is poised to become indispensable.
I think that one day we will wonder how we ever lived without it. We can have a much more enhanced conversation with the power of AR. The future is now.
January 2020: Cook tells an audience in Dublin, Ireland, that augmented reality “is the next big thing” and that it will “pervade our entire lives.” He gives an example of a company using AR and describes its potential uses.
Yesterday, I visited a development company called War Ducks … in Dublin – 15 people and they're staffing up and using AR for games. You can imagine, for games it's incredible but even for our discussion here. You and I might be talking about an article and using AR we can pull it up, and can both be looking at the same thing at the same time.
I think it's something that doesn't isolate people. We can use it to enhance our discussion, not substitute it for human connection, which I've always deeply worried about in some of the other technologies.
April 2021: During an interview with journalist Kara Swisher Cook agreed with her that augmented reality is “a critically important part of Apple's future.” He imagines AR being used in health, education, retail, and gaming.
I'm already seeing AR take off in some of these areas with use of the phone. And I think the promise is even greater in the future.
September 2021: In an interview with tech YouTuber iJustine, Cook said that he was AR's number one fan and reiterated his hopes for it as a collaboration tool.
I am so excited about AR. I think AR is one of these very few profound technologies that we will look back on one day and went, how did we live our lives without it? And so right now you can experience it in thousands of ways using your iPad or your iPhone, but of course, those will get better and better over time.
Already it's a great way to shop, it's a great way to learn. It enhances the learning process. I can't wait for it to be even more important in collaboration and so forth.
So I'm AR fan number one. I think it's that big.
After a comment from Justine about the future impact of AR, he continued:
I mean, simple things today that you can use it for, like if you're shopping for a sofa, or a chair, or a lamp, in terms of really experiencing it in your place, we've never been able to do that before until the last couple years or so. And that's at the early innings of AR. It will only get better.
June 2022: During WWDC 2022, Cook told the state-run outlet China Daily AR needs to focus on humanity:
“I am incredibly excited about AR as you may know, and the critical thing in any technology, including AR, is putting humanity at the center of it. That is what we focus on every day,”
September 2022: During a livestream at the Universitá Degli Studi di Napoli Federico II in Naples, Italy, Cook said he thinks we will wonder how we lived without AR:
I think that we've had a great conversation here today, but if we could augment that with something from the virtual world, it would have arguably been even better. So I think that if you, and this will happen clearly not too long from now, if you… zoom out to the future and look back, you'll wonder how you led your life without augmented reality. Just like today, we wonder, how did people like me grow up without the internet.
April 2023: Cook again explained Apple's interest in AR while being interviewed by GQ's Zach Baron:
If you think about the technology itself with augmented reality, just to take one side of the AR/VR piece, the idea that you could overlay the physical world with things from the digital world could greatly enhance people's communication, people's connection.
We might be able to collaborate on something much easier if we were sitting here brainstorming about it and all of a sudden we could pull up something digitally and both see it and begin to collaborate on it and create with it.
Baron then paraphrased Cook's proposal that users could measure a glass pane or put some art up on the wall. Cook also said Apple isn't trying to follow up anyone else's efforts:
Can we make a significant contribution, in some kind of way, something that other people are not doing? Can we own the primary technology? I'm not interested in putting together pieces of somebody else's stuff. Because we want to control the primary technology. Because we know that's how you innovate.
What's Apple's plan for AR?
Clearly, Tim Cook has been bullish on AR for a long time. Until we see the new headset, the extent of Apple's foray into AR will have been the 2017 launch of ARKit — which use iPhones' and iPads' cameras and sensors to overlay images in 3D space when the device is pointed at a given area — for iOS 11. ARKit is available across Apple's devices, which has spurred a lot of cool little projects by amateur AR enthusiasts. When it launched, The Verge wrote that the tech had the potential to allow Apple to catch rival Google in the AR space.
Ultimately, AR on phones, for most people, probably means the occasional quick measurement or level check when you can't find your bubble leveler. And let's not forget plopping a virtual chair in your room, which is an admittedly cool use of AR. But one of the most striking examples of what a combination of AI and augmented reality can produce was the recent introduction of TikTok's “Bold Glamour” face filter, which had been used in over 58 million videos by mid-May.
There have been fun apps that take advantage of ARKit beyond those use cases — Tim Cook loved the Statue of Liberty AR app enough that he cited it when he tweeted about the transformative power of AR. And, of course, there's Pokémon Go, though that game may have been lightning in a bottle, with nothing having achieved its massive success since.
In short, the company's AR work on phones hasn't been the sort of bombshell that Cook's words hint at. It's not clear yet that the Apple mixed reality headset's debut will be any different, at least in the short term.
Reports started trickling out in 2018 that Apple had a timeline to launch both an AR headset and AR glasses. By 2019, the company reportedly had 1,000 engineers working on its VR and AR initiative codenamed “T288”.
Rumors are heavily pointing to a WWDC 2023 reveal, possibly under the name “Reality Pro.” Descriptions available so far lay out a mixed-reality device that can seamlessly switch between AR and VR with a dial not unlike the Apple Watch's digital crown, with an M2 Ultra processor and an external battery pack.
But it's a first-run product that will probably come with first-run problems that will need dedicated work from Apple and good third-party support to ensure long-term success. There are supporters and detractors both inside the company and out, but given Cook's enthusiasm and the Reality Pro's long development period, it's probable Apple is in it for the long haul.
It shouldn't be all that surprising that Apple has taken its time making the Reality Pro, or whatever it's actually called. This is, after all, the company that introduced the AirPower wireless charging pad, showed it off to the world, then canceled the product because it wasn't up to company standards — and that was just a charging accessory, not a potential new computing paradigm.
Update September 16th, 12:40PM ET: Added quote from his post-Apple event interview with iJustine.
Update June 5th, 2023, 12:40PM ET: Added quotes from this April GQ profile and additional information about the headset ahead of its rumored introduction at WWDC 2023.