Will Apple’s rumored mixed reality headset set the company up for failure, or for a future where smart glasses are everywhere? That’s the big question running through my mind as we prepare for the annual Worldwide Developers Conference next week. Despite Apple’s track record with disruptive technology — notably, the iPod and iPhone — there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical when it comes to mixed reality. Existing mixed reality headsets such as HoloLens 2 and Magic Leap 2 are aimed primarily at corporate customers who are easily offended by high prices. VR headsets tend to evolve when it comes to the depth of their experiences and their potential market. Just look at , which basically recycles existing VR games.
And then there’s the big problem, the one Apple needs to solve more than anything else: Why should consumers come first – not the geeky early adopter or avid gamers – want to wear something on their head for a long time? A mixed reality headset is not like an iPod or iPhone, which expands the possibilities of existing products but can easily fit in your pocket. It’s not just like AirPods or Apple Watch, the accessories are meant to compliment Apple’s existing hardware. A headset, by its very definition, should be a universal product, a constant reminder that you see the world through Apple’s eyes.
At its WWDC keynote on Monday, Apple had to make the case for a mixed reality headset as quickly as Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone and iPod. But this time, it may not be a complete product for early users. (True, the iPhone took a few years to evolve into something more compelling with the addition of 3G and the App Store.) Instead, we might see an appeal to developers to help build in its mixed reality ecosystem, and for consumers who have faith that it will eventually become cheaper and truly useful.
Reporting from points to Apple’s mixed reality headset – possibly – a $3,000 device with a focus on gaming, exercise and productivity. It is said to rely on finger gestures to navigate a floating interface, and will have a virtual keyboard along with support for physical keyboards. In addition, Gurman says that there will be a Digital Crown, similar to the Apple Watch, which can transition the headset from fully immersive VR to mixed reality, combining the digital interface with the real world using the onboard camera.
Magic Leap founder (and podcast co-host) Rony Abovitz sees the potential of Apple’s headset as a big boost for the mixed reality industry. “When Apple unveils an XR system next week, that action alone will help validate the belief shared by many XR pioneers that XR is the next major computing platform, ” he told Engadget via email. “It will take time and many generations to perfect, but we should see the market move faster after this milestone.”
But not everyone is convinced that “mixed reality” (MR) is the way forward. Edward Saatchi, the founder of the VR studio Fable and the original founder of Oculus’s Story Studio, told me that he was “not convinced” about the concept of MR: “As a creator of VR and AR, there are many differences between to create AR content and create VR content and it’s hard to see how an MR headset that can’t decide between AR and VR can be very successful.
“AR and VR present different design challenges and you can’t port an AR app to a VR app,” Saatchi added. He likens it to smartphone gamepad accessories, such as the Backbone and Razer Kiyo, which aim to let you play even complex console games or casual phone games. The combination of those is “bad” for him.
As cloudy as Apple’s intentions are right now, the mixed reality industry is primed for the kind of disruption the company knows. After all, Apple didn’t make the first MP3 device, or the first smartphone. But it was the first company to create a simple music store supported by the music industry, and the iPhone represented a dramatic leap forward from what BlackBerry and other smartphone platforms offered in 2007.
“The biggest piece that Apple brings to the table with this [headset] is Apple’s installed base, and the ability to use all the other Apple tech with a wealth of already installed hardware,” Jack Gold, President and Principal Analyst at J. Gold Associates told Engadget .”Meta doesn’t have the same ability because it’s just a browser/software game. Apple can easily integrate any headset with links (and OS updates) to iPhones and Macs and has a built-in market of millions. So Apple has a head start against anyone else in the market with an installed base of easily upgradeable users. “
Gold says it also makes sense that Apple is targeting developers first: “Given the price and the relatively low volume expected, it’s better to get. [headsets] to creators rather than consumers, and save consumers for follow-up products with better features (which are also debugged by developers), and a lower price.”
Although Apple has managed to create one of the most sophisticated mixed reality headsets on the market, it is not yet clear what the mainstream pitch for such a device will be. For it to be truly compelling, I imagine the company would have to go a step further from what we saw with Meta Quest (and the ). It needs to go beyond games to provide experiences you can’t get anywhere else.
A possibility crossed my mind a few weeks ago when Sightful . It’s basically a small computer box that, together with customized Nreal smart glasses, you can see a 100″ AR display. While I haven’t tried it personally, it’s easy to imagine something from Apple offers the same functionality when connected to a Mac, iPhone or iPad.
Just imagine taking a MacBook Air into a coffee shop, putting on a pair of mixed reality glasses, and having a 100-inch virtual window extending out from the laptop screen. This is a boon for multitaskers, as well as people who need to work on confidential public material. (No more people looking over your shoulder on airplanes!) It’s likely to be years before this is technically possible, but that could also coincide with when Apple makes a more cheap headset.
Apple’s vision is reportedly beyond mixed reality to lightweight AR glasses, but it’s still unclear how far into the future it will be. “Pure AR glasses seem like a completely logical next step, but 10 years ago we all said it would take 10 years to get there, and they don’t seem to be there yet.” 10 years away for me,” Saatchi said.
But why stop at the glass? Apple’s mixed reality ecosystem can easily be translated into more advanced technology without the need for you to wear anything. “I think the biggest issue is wearing this ‘thing’ on top of your head that takes up space and makes it so I can’t see well (imagine trying to walk down the street with one of these things ), said Gold. “I think in five to ten years, what we’re going to see is XR that doesn’t need this big thing on my head to work. That’s when it becomes more meaningful, using head-up displays, even 3D ones showing phones, etc.”
To paraphrase Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Futurewhere we’re going, we won’t need screens.