Apple’s newly announced virtual reality headset promises to blend the real world with video and audio, ranging from immersive FaceTime video chats to watching films and shows on a huge virtual movie screen. But even the company that pioneered the modern smartphone may not have great expectations for its $3499 device at a time when rival Silicon Valley giants such as Meta and Microsoft have struggled to make VR go mainstream.
“Apple’s headset is both experimental and expensive,” says Lee Vinsel, a historian of technology at Virginia Tech. “The same was true for many other eventually successful devices, including the iPhone, but those technologies were opening up new spaces, whereas Apple is entering well-trod ground where others have failed.”
Apple’s Vision Pro headset presented at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference on 5 June is designed to deliver blended reality experiences for many familiar apps made by Apple, Microsoft and other companies that mix virtual and physical spaces for work and entertainment. The headset also provides a “see-through” experience that shows the wearer’s eyes and allows for interaction with other people in the physical world even while the wearer is interacting with virtual experiences. It even creates a digital persona to replicate the appearance of the wearer for use in FaceTime conversations and other experiences.
Scheduled to become available for purchase in early 2024, the headset is connected by a woven cable to a …
pocket battery that supports up to 2 hours of use and supposedly runs almost silently and at a comfortable temperature. It also contains a new Apple computer chip called R1 that processes information from 12 cameras, five sensors and six microphones in an attempt to eliminate sensor lag. The headset can be controlled solely through the wearer’s visual gaze, voice and small hand gestures such as pinching and flicking motions.
Silicon Valley has been trying to make some version of XR – the catchall phrase for virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality – go mainstream for decades, says Wagner James Au, author of the book Making a Metaverse That Matters. Apple’s Vision Pro headset is technically a mixed reality device that enables wearers to access immersive virtual experiences while still seeing the outside world.
Part of the challenge for XR headsets has been the steep cost, along with the physical discomfort and awkwardness of using bulky headsets. But another significant issue that has been overlooked by many tech companies involves the many people who experience virtual reality sickness, which is like motion sickness, says Au.
Despite having sold 20 million Quest headsets so far, Meta has struggled to keep VR users returning to the virtual experiences available in its previously touted metaverse platform. Shortly before Apple’s headset announcement, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his company’s upcoming Quest 3 VR headset that also offers a mixed reality experience.
Meanwhile, Microsoft had sold just 300,000 units of its HoloLens headset as of late 2022 while similarly failing to gain traction for its own metaverse vision.
Virtual reality and other XR headsets failed to gain significant traction even during the pandemic when millions of people stayed closer to home – global shipments of both VR and AR headsets shrank by more than 12 per cent between 2021 and 2022. “The base of VR users remains small and is still almost wholly in video games and other forms of entertainment,” says Vinsel.
Given that backdrop, Apple has projected sales of less than 100,000 units of its headset and total production of potentially just 300,000 headsets, according to TrendForce. If the headset doesn’t sell well even based on those modest goals, Apple could still “present it as a prototype or as an early adopter thing” and market it primarily for business customers, says Au.
Apple’s headset development has cost the company more than $1 billion per year, according to Bloomberg. But as the world’s largest company and profits of almost $100 billion in 2022, the company can afford to bet on a multibillion dollar VR experiment even if it completely fails.
“They could throw a billion dollars at research in VR and not even notice it,” says Au. “That’s like the change of their couch.”