Apple buys startup focused on lenses for augmented reality glasses

glassesApple has acquired a startup focused on making lenses for augmented reality glasses, the company confirmed to Reuters, a signal said the news agency of that it has ambitions to make a wearable device that would superimpose digital information on the real world.

Apple said it had acquired Colorado-based Akonia Holographics: “Apple buys smaller companies from time to time, and we generally don’t discuss our purpose or plans,” the company said in a statement.

Akonia was founded in 2012 by a group of holography scientists and had originally focused on holographic data storage before shifting its efforts to creating displays for augmented reality glasses, according to its website.

Its display technology allows for “thin, transparent smart glass lenses that display vibrant, full-colour, wide field-of-view images.” The firm has a portfolio of more than 200 patents related to holographic systems and materials, according to its website.

The purchase price and date of the acquisition have not been made public, though one executive in the augmented reality industry said the Akonia team had become “very quiet” over the past six months, implying that the deal may have happened in the first half of this year.

Last year, Bloomberg reported that Apple was developing augmented reality glasses that could be released as early as 2020. The company has launched augmented reality applications for its iPhones and iPads, and chief executive Tim Cook has called augmented reality a “big and profound” technology development.

“This is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it,” Cook said of augmented reality on a conference call with investors last year.

Apple has a history of buying smaller companies whose technologies show up years later in its products. In 2013, Apple acquired a small Israeli firm called PrimeSense that made three-dimensional sensors. The iPhone X, launched last year, used a similar sensor to power facial recognition features.

The Akonia acquisition is the first clear indication of how Apple might handle one of the most daunting challenges in augmented reality hardware; producing crystal clear optical displays thin and light enough to fit into glasses similar to everyday frames with images bright enough for outdoor use and suited to mass manufacturing at a relatively low price.

Augmented reality headsets currently on the market such as Microsoft’s HoloLense and startup Magic Leap’s Magic Leap One both use darkened lenses and are intended for indoor use. Both are also intended for software developers testing the technology and cost several thousand dollars.