Discover Insights into Apple's Secretive Exploratory Design Group (XDG) that's behind all Future Apple Products
Everyone in the Apple community knows that Apple is famous for keeping its future products under wraps, but even by those standards the company’s Exploratory Design Group is the most secretive of all.
This covert team, according to a new report by Mark Gurman, is the brains behind future no-prick glucose tracking technology for the Apple Watch. And that’s not all it’s working on. The group is akin to X, Alphabet Inc.’s “moonshot factory,” which helped develop Waymo self-driving car technology, Google Glass and Loon internet balloons.
Though the Apple team — better known inside the company as XDG — is primarily focused on the glucose work, there are several other projects underway and it’s made key contributions to existing Apple devices.
The team originated several years ago and was long led by Bill Athas, one of the few people to have the title of engineering fellow at Apple, until he passed away unexpectedly at the end of last year. Athas was seen by the late co-founder Steve Jobs and current Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook as one of the brightest engineering minds at the company.
The XDG team sits within Apple’s Hardware Technologies group, led by Senior Vice President Johny Srouji, and works at a building known as Tantau 9 right outside of the Apple Park spaceship-shaped ring.
The team is now run on a day-to-day basis by a number of Athas lieutenants, including top Apple engineers and scientists Jeff Koller, Dave Simon, Heather Sullens, Bryan Raines and Jared Zerbe. Koller, Simon and Raines are involved in the glucose project, while Sullens and Zerbe manage other groups within the larger team.
The Exploratory Design Group operates as a startup within Apple and is made up of only a few hundred people, mostly engineers and academic types. That’s a far cry from the many hundreds of people in the Special Projects Group, which is focused on Apple’s self-driving car, or the more than a thousand engineers in Apple’s Technology Development Group, the team building the mixed-reality headset.
Beyond the glucose work, XDG is working on next-generation display technology, artificial intelligence and features for AR/VR headsets that help people with eye diseases. The team originally came together under Athas to work on low-power processor technologies and next-generation batteries for smartphones, efforts that continue.
Like Alphabet’s moonshot team — and those at other Silicon Valley companies — the XDG staff is given vast financial resources and headroom to explore countless ideas. The members have a different remit than the engineering teams churning out new iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches annually. Instead, they’re instructed to work on projects until they can determine whether or not an idea is feasible.
The unit is even more secretive than Alphabet’s X but it’s not a pie-in-the-sky operation. It has already had breakthroughs that made their way into Apple products. Many of the chip and battery technologies developed by XDG have been shipping for years in iPhones, iPads and Macs.
While the team operates as a startup, it is still compartmentalized like any other Apple division: People working on one project within XDG aren’t allowed to communicate about their work with other members of XDG that are assigned to different projects.
But the team’s members are organized by skill sets rather than individual projects. That means that one engineer could be working on several initiatives that fit their skills, rather than on one specific product.
The Apple headset probably won’t require an iPhone, and other new models are in development. The company’s first mixed-reality headset, unlike the original Apple Watch, probably won’t require an iPhone for setup or use. I’m told that the latest test versions of the device and its onboard xrOS operating system can be set up without an iPhone and can download a user’s content and iCloud data directly from the cloud.
You will, however, be able to transfer your data from an iPhone or iPad, just as you can today when setting up a new device. As I’ve written previously, the headset doesn’t have a remote control but instead is operated by a user’s eyes and hands.
A key feature for text input — in-air typing — is available on the latest internal prototypes, I’m told. But it’s been finicky in testing. So if you get the first headset, you still may want to pair an iPhone to use its touch-screen keyboard.
The hope within Apple is to make rapid improvements after the device is released. The company expects its headset to follow the same path as the original Apple Watch in that respect.
Apple is currently planning to unveil its first headset, which may be dubbed the Reality Pro, at WWDC in June. The product would then ship toward the end of 2023 at the earliest. But there are already follow-ups in the works, too. For more on this, read the full Bloomberg report.
While Apple legal hunts down leakers across the globe, Bloomberg's Mark Gurman appears to have gotten Apple's approval to release specific information that they want out in the market for whatever reasons they have at any given point in time. This is what makes Gurman's leaks so interesting.