Apple Reportedly Making a VR Headset Few Will Actually Buy

Illustration for article titled Apple Reportedly Making a VR Headset Few Will Actually Buy
Photo: Ryan Anson/AFP (Getty Images)

It’s an open secret that Apple is working on some kind of augmented reality or virtual reality headset. Some, have been so bold as to predict sleek Steve Jobs-style smart glasses as soon as summer 2021. But now Bloomberg is reporting that before we get smart glasses, Apple is attempting a niche VR headset that will likely cost a metric crapton.

Advertisement

The news comes via Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, an Apple prognosticator with a reliable track record. Citing unnamed sources, Gurman contends that the headset has “confronted several development hurdles” and a more ambitious AR device will take a while to develop due to technological and logistical challenges.

This initial headset will likely be a “mostly virtual” gadget, with an “all-encompassing 3D digital environment” meant for games, videos, and chats. It’s meant to compete against Oculus, Playstation VR, and HTC Vive. AR capabilities, however, will be limited. We might see this headset as early as 2022, but the price will be much, much, much more expensive than any rival headsets. So expensive, that Gurman’s sources believe that Apple might only sell one headset a day at each of its retail stores.

Why so expensive when a very good Oculus Quest 2 starts at just $300? Well, firstly, it’s Apple. Second, it would appear that Apple plans on stuffing the headset—which is currently in a late prototype stage—with beefier chips than are currently available in existing VR headsets. Some of the chips purportedly beat out Apple’s impressive M1 chip in performance. The headset also apparently removes some of the internal space usually reserved to accommodate users with eyeglasses. To make up for it, the system will purportedly allow for prescription lenses to be inserted into the headset over the VR screen itself. The device is also meant to be standalone, meaning no wires or the need to plug into another device (e.g., how PlayStation VR plugs into a PlayStation console).

So far this sounds reminiscent of the Oculus Quest 2, though the Bloomberg report notes Apple’s version will also include external cameras for limited AR features. It’s not clear exactly what those capabilities will be, but presumably the cameras will do more than the Quest 2's, which are primarily for hand tracking and spatial awareness.

Lastly, this thing will likely be so dang expensive because Apple might not actually care about selling a ton of them. Instead of vying for a commercial hit, Bloomberg suggests that Apple’s goal is to prime developers and consumers for an eventual pair of smart glasses, which Bloomberg’s sources say are still in an early “architecture” stage. As in, Apple hasn’t yet figured out some of the tech to make it a viable product. If true, we probably won’t be seeing Apple smart glasses this year, next year, or possibly even the year after that.

Advertisement

Previous reports have speculated that Apple smart glasses might arrive as early as 2023—but again this was in the pre-pandemic era. On top of logistical supply chain delays for the iPhone 12, Bloomberg reports lockdowns have also hampered progress in developing AR hardware, as Apple engineers are only able to work from the office on designated days. Those delays also extend to user testing and data collection.

This is all a bunch of ifs. AR and VR are still very much nascent technologies that will have to clear several hurdles before they can be as mainstream as a smartphone. Especially in the case of AR. Not only do you have to account for things like ambient light wrecking an AR overlay’s visibility, but you also have to get components that are small and powerful. Battery life and consistent wifi or cellular connectivity are huge obstacles that even the most advanced smart glasses we’ve seen so far have yet to solve in an elegant way. This isn’t even considering extra hurdles like prescription lenses—which might then involve regulatory oversight because technically, glasses are a medical device—or broader concerns such as style and societal concerns about privacy.

Advertisement

Then on top of all that, there’s the content problem. Right now, there aren’t lots of applications for bulky VR headsets outside of gaming—though if you let a tech bro talk long enough, they’ll blather on about virtual concerts, workspaces, and video calls. There might be more obvious use cases for AR, but again, technological problems have to be addressed first.

None of these challenges has really stopped Big Tech from plowing forward with consumer smart glasses. That said, these first efforts are more audio-based than visual. Facebook’s teamed up with Ray-Ban but its first pair of “smart glasses” won’t include AR. Amazon’s Echo Frames also stuff Alexa into a pair of glasses, but again, no AR. Likewise, Bose shut down its AR division last year and have since refocused their connected glasses to be more open-ear audio headphones. Focals by North were a compelling pair of consumer AR glasses, but alas, Google bought the company and killed its glasses last year.

Advertisement

There is a theme here. If and when we do eventually see whatever Apple’s been tinkering on all these years, it’ll have to solve a good number of these issues, provide a compelling use case for the average consumer, and differentiate itself from the competition. That’s a tall order, even for Apple.

Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.

DISCUSSION

Ah, good ol’ VR/AR. The one piece of technology that makes me want it in concept, but reject it in principle. I feel there are too many options, either too expensive or too restricted to their own walled gardens or... well, so far I don’t know of anything I could call both “affordable” and “good for absolutely every VR application out there”. It’s always a compromise: if it is affordable, it is restricted in some way, and if it is open, it is too freaking expensive (Note: There may be some middle ground solution I simply don’t know about, I stopped paying attention after the Oculus Quest 2).

Having said that, Apple in particular at least has the relative advantage that their fan base is all about remaining in the ecosystem, so this may have some measure of success if priced right, and if useful.  I’m still not buying Apple products, but hey, to each their own.