While they were all over the map these last two years, rumors of Apple’s VR and AR projects have been heading in a single direction lately and taking shape around a single product. Considering how reliable sources like The Information and Bloomberg are, I have to believe they are accurate.
It seems that Apple is working on something different than initially expected to lead off their new ambitions. A pair of “Apple Glass” augmented reality glasses will have to wait, as all signs point to them getting started with a virtual reality headset. A very expensive VR headset.
There will be plenty of time to talk about the specifics of what Apple is up to. Right now, the broad strokes are that they are working on a refining what we typically think of as a headset, using mesh and other materials to cut the bulk and weight down. They are also going all-out on the display tech, using two 8K displays with new micro OLED technology, developed in cooperation with TSMC. There is also a stream of new patents related to different things like eye-tracking, dynamic rendering, 3D editing and other relevant technologies.
For me, the most interesting aspect of this rumored VR headset is the reported price tag and the reactions to it. Right now, the price is pegged at around $3,000, which will obviously put it outside the reach of your typical Apple consumer or VR gamer. A new product like this in a new device category for the company will be heavily geared toward developers, but you always expect Apple to be aiming at the high end of the consumer market, as well. Even through they aren’t cheap and cost more than the competition, the Apple Watch, HomePod and AirPods Max are still priced at an attainable level for those who see the features as worth the cost. Three grand is blowing by that barrier by a wide margin.
However, I think this high price tag and the rumored cutting-edge tech going into this project tell us something about how Apple views it. They aren’t creating a gaming headset made to take on established brands like Oculus. This looks more like a new computing platform for Apple. It isn’t priced for the pro-sumer like the AirPods Max. This VR headset sounds more analogous to the Mac Pro, which is also priced for a small subset of very high-end users.
Apple won’t be alone in this segment of the mixed reality market. Microsoft’s HoloLens is priced around $3,500, and is currently geared toward specialized use in commercial and industrial markets. I’m not sure that Apple’s product will compete head to head with HoloLens, but it will be in the same neighborhood in that it’s an evolving platform where you pay dearly for the latest and greatest tech and features.
We can find some good examples of what Apple may be up to looking back at the early history of computing. There were accessible computing platforms that were less expensive and easier to use. They tended to be popular with gamers and had somewhat limited capability beyond basic tasks. I had a Commodore 64 and 128 back in the day, and a TI-99/4A before that, so I was well acquainted with this class of computer. And other than cranking out papers and a few school projects, the only other thing I used them for was, you guessed it- playing games.
However, all of these lower-end early computing platforms faded away over time. While PCs and Macs were incredibly expensive in their early days, as their computing power increased and the prices dropped, they began to dominate the consumer market. The future lies with the platforms that have the capacity to grow into something versatile and useful. To me, it looks like Apple is aiming to go that route and build something with the the potential to be a new computing paradigm, rather than just a new way to play games.
Apple will certainly have some stiff competition in this market segment, as Microsoft has a head start with HoloLens and Google also went the commercial/industrial route with Google Glass several years ago. However, it’s still early days and there is still plenty of time for them to get up to speed, especially if they put the full weight of their R&D efforts behind it.
What I find funny is how short-sighted most of the early criticism of this Apple VR headset is. The majority of the comments are all about the short term, talking about how few expensive VR headsets Apple will sell and who will actually buy such a thing. It’s pretty obvious that Apple isn’t aiming this product at your average consumer. It will likely be for developers first, for use in commercial and industrial applications, and also for early adopters.
As for that last category, when you consider that the Apple brand tends to attract affluent consumers, there may be more of these early buyers than some might believe today. That will depend on what the product looks like and what it can do right out of the gate, but there will absolutely be some Apple fans who will lay down $3,000+ to get their hands on a brand new product on day one. I doubt I will be one of them, but I’ll at least reserve judgement on that until we see something more concrete than rumors.
But in my opinion, as long as the product works and gives devs what they need to starting working on Apple’s new class of devices (and quite possibly a brand new OS termed rOS), it really doesn’t matter how many they sell. Again, that’s a short-sighted view. Just think back to the Apple Watch for a great examle of this.
Everyone thought the original Apple Watch was a flop when the early buzz faded and some early buyers returned theirs. To be sure, there was a lot that Apple got wrong with that first product. However, the important thing was that they LEARNED from that experience, figured out what worked and what didn’t, and reshaped the hardware and software around that. The second-gen hardware was powerful enough to provide a better experience and the software was completely revamped a little over a year after release. Fast forward to today and you’d be laughed at for calling the Apple Watch a flop.
Apple’s coming VR headset is a little different because of how expensive it will be. However, like the Apple Watch, it will be the company’s first step into a new hardware category. It will also be part of a long-term plan that poor first-year sales won’t derail.None of what I’ve said guarantees the ultimate success of this or other Apple mixed reality products. The company definitely has its work cut out over the next decade.
That said, when you look at articles covering all of the rumors and features of this coming VR headset, don’t just think about it looking at what we’re getting at release and how many units will be moved in year one. Think about what this category of devices could turn into over the next five to ten years if Apple is fully behind it.