New graphics chips and new Mac Pros: is Apple paving the way for an AR future?

Apple had a bit of a rough week - with a supplier dispute exposed, and the failure of the existing Mac Pro made plain. But do these odd revelations hint at a bigger picture?

For anyone who pays attention to matters Apple-related this has been an odd week. Two things happened that are…unusual, to say the least.

  1. Apple’s conflict with a soon-to-be-former supplier became public knowledge
  2. Apple effectively admitted that it screwed up with the last version of the Mac Pro – and pre-announced a brand new version, coming sometime after the end of the year.

In isolation, each of these is an interesting crack in Apple’s normal facade of secrecy. Because of a chip company’s announcement that it was losing Apple’s business, we now know that Apple is bringing graphics chip design in-house.

Imagination Technologies lost more than half its market value in a single day this week when the chip designer revealed that Apple, its largest customer, was developing its own version of the graphics processing units in which the UK-based group has specialised.

To be fair, Apple has been designing its own chips for iOS device for years – and they now have the A-line of main processors, the M-line for motion sensors, and the W-line, which is currently providing the networking for the wireless AirPods. Now, it looks like a G-line is on its way – and that suggests that there’s something about graphics processing that Apple is suddenly taking a lot more seriously than it has in the past.

The Mac Pro proposition

The same basic picture is emerging from this rare Apple admission of a miss-step. As Apple’s senior VP of software engineering Craig Federighi put it (as reported by John Gruber):

I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will. We designed a system with the kind of GPUs that at the time we thought we needed, and that we thought we could well serve with a two GPU architecture. That that was the thermal limit we needed, or the thermal capacity we needed. But workloads didn’t materialize to fit that as broadly as we hoped.

Being able to put larger single GPUs required a different system architecture and more thermal capacity than that system was designed to accommodate. So it became fairly difficult to adjust. At the same time, so many of our customers were moving to iMac that we saw a path to address many, many more of those that were finding themselves limited by a Mac Pro through next generation iMac. And really put a lot of our energy behind that.

The current model of Mac Pro – over three year old at the point – was small and beautiful – but that design came with a price. The thermal limitations of the case mean they haven’t been able to put better processors and – significantly – graphics processors in there. And while Apple gambled on the future being multiple graphics chips working in parallel, it turns out that what people really want is ever-bigger chips. And that means more heat that the current design couldn’t cope with.

When you start looking at these together, though, they tell an interesting story: Apple is serious about starting to design its own graphics chips. And it’s serious about getting back into the high end computing game.

And what areas of emergent technology require high end computing throughput, and the very best graphics chips you can create? Hmm. Let’s think.

VR, AR and AI

These three areas spring to mind:

  1. Virtual Reality
  2. Augmented Reality
  3. Machine Learning

We already know that Apple is making increasing use of machine learning, most notably in its Photos app – but in other places as well. It turns out that the sorts of chips uses in graphics are also really good for that sort of processing. So it’s more than possible that we’re seeing the first signs of a greater focus on on-device machine learning. Apple remains reluctant to push machine learning to the cloud, for security reasons.

Beyond that, though, Apple getting some serious silicon in the graphics game isn’t likely to be about games. Apple has never cared deeply about the games market. If this move is to support VR, it’s a by-product of what Apple seems to be more serious about: augmented reality.

Tim Cook has gone on the record as saying that he thinks AR will be much more important than VR. VR will be a niche technology for gaming and some business uses, while AR will be the mainstream tech that starts to really alter the way we think about the world around us. It is a big idea like the smartphone, he’s suggested. And the smartphone was the idea that transformed Apple’s business.

If that’s the case, and these moves herald it, then this is a good sign that the infrastructure is dropping into place for a future generation of Apple devices to support AR is a serious way.

This September’s iPhone announcement could be very interesting. Apple are rarely the first to any field, but they still have a knack of taking ideas and pushing them to the mainstream. This could be AR’s year.