For some time I’ve been tracking the conversation about when Apple might launch a virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) headset. I find it fascinating to watch the confidence with which some commentators predict the launch date of a device that then fails to arrive, before asserting a new date further in the future. I won’t go as far as that here, but I will review the rumours that have swirled around Apple’s venture into spatial computing and give my opinion.
Let’s consider Apple’s options if it did want to enter the market. It could jump straight into the world of VR and build an extremely powerful headset, complete with passthrough capabilities to deliver mixed reality experiences. The device could adopt a hybrid model that allows it to run as a standalone headset or tether to a Mac or iOS device for additional power.
The pieces are in place for Apple to do that right now. Meta has shown what’s possible with its Quest Pro, delivering a $1,500 headset that supports impressive mixed reality experiences (check out my thoughts here). The rumours of Apple entering this segment have floated a price tag of $3,000 for a headset, with questionable renders producing a device that looks like a pair of ugly ski goggles.
The device may be relatively straightforward to build, but there’s the question of the user experience, the VR ecosystem and potential uses for a headset. The market for VR remains small, and although there have been breakout successes in consumer and business environments, we’ve yet to see a “killer” app. Meta worked hard to prove that its Quest Pro is a headset for work — striking a deal with Microsoft to bring Office and Teams experiences to the device — but I still think we’re a very long way away from desk-based work shifting from PCs to headsets.
Rumours have suggested that Apple could follow in Meta’s footsteps with a VR headset exclusively targeted at businesses or developers, so that when further devices follow, the killer apps have been built. I’m not convinced by this logic for two reasons. Firstly, what happens if these apps never arrive? It would leave Apple with a burdensome product, making the firm look like it’d got the whole thing wrong — not a perception it wants to create. And secondly, it’s just not a typical Apple approach. Its flagship launches are designed to take the world by storm. Imagine how much less impact the launch of the original iPhone would have had if had been a developer-only device for the first year.
Another device that Apple is rumoured to be exploring is AR glasses, and I believe this is what the firm truly wants to build. However, AR glasses come with fundamental engineering challenges, many of which are still proving difficult. Building powerful computing capabilities and displays into a device that looks just like normal eyewear is possible, but thermal dissipation is difficult and battery life is limited, which usually means the device needs to be plugged in.
We’re seeing progress here, with solutions like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon AR2 platform providing computing power to glasses wirelessly from a smartphone, but I’m still concerned that battery life is a major problem that will take time to solve. If the battery can’t last eight to 12 hours, I don’t think AR glasses will be all that useful. Although Apple could build a VR headset now, when it comes to AR, the firm is fighting the same laws of physics as everyone else, and it will want to avoid a failed product above all.
So, I’m not overly convinced that either of the rumoured design approaches works right now. And looking at Apple’s history, I think that people often forget the company’s sense of timing — it is perfectly happy to let others move first and make customers wait for products.
Why is this? Usually, it’s because Apple takes a different approach to the technology, placing user experience at the forefront. It seeks to solve the problems the rest of the market has encountered and uses this to differentiate. Apple has shown repeatedly that it doesn’t need a first-mover advantage to become the most successful company in a market.
A further consideration is the current conversation about the metaverse. Debate has been unrelenting since Meta rebranded in an aim to adapt to the virtual era. But with Meta’s continued performance struggles, the metaverse has quickly become a byword for big tech burning cash — an association that looks worse and worse with every round of layoffs in the industry.
Looking out at the landscape for 2023, where many economists are still pessimistic and much of the technology industry is expected to struggle, I doubt that now is the time to take a huge bet on VR and AR — and the implicit promise of the metaverse. Even if Apple doesn’t use the term, just like we predicted, it’s likely that media outlets will make the connection anyway and drag Apple into the mix.
Taking the above, I’m not convinced Apple will jump into VR and AR this year. The firm is surely working on both technologies behind the scenes as it won’t want to get caught out if the metaverse conversation leaps forward — but there are so many question marks about applications, devices and the wider market. There’s a counter-argument that if Apple does something totally off the wall — like it did with the iPhone — it could dismiss everything I’ve said and transform the market overnight. If that happens in 2023, I’ll happily be proven wrong. But right now, the rumours just don’t add up.
A version of this article was first published on Independent.ie on 9 February 2023.
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