As Apple prepares for its long-running leap into augmented reality on Monday, doubts have clouded every step of the way. There are frequent changes of direction and skepticism in the ranks of Apple. The device would have been difficult to manufacture and would have required many compromises. The process took more years than Apple expected. And at a rumored $3,000, even Apple expects slow sales in the near term.
But among augmented reality professionals, the mood is jubilant. “This is the biggest thing that can happen to this industry,” says Jay Wright, CEO of VR/AR collaboration platform Campfire 3D. “Whether you’re doing hardware or software. We are delighted.
No Industry Needs Apple’s “It Works” Philosophy Like Augmented Reality
build on positive reviews industry pioneers like Palmer Luckey, AR hardware and software makers say Apple can finally validate a decade of attempts to mainstream the technology. Some of that optimism is driven by Apple specs rumorsincluding a lightweight design and a supposedly extraordinarily premium screen.
Proponents point to Apple’s history of entering a market after other companies have laid the groundwork, as was the case with phones. But much of it can be summed up in two statements: Apple can sell hardware, and Apple is cool.
No tech category needs Apple”that works” promise more than AR. (This format is sometimes referred to as “mixed reality” or “XR,” just to emphasize how confusing consumer discourse is.) SteamVR and the Quest store, and a widely used controller scheme.
AR has no such warranties.
Its hardware is wildly varied, ranging from chunky headsets with fancy tracking to smart glasses that do little more than show alerts. Its software is often oriented towards hyper-specialized business uses. There is no established consensus on control schemes.
Based on numerous leaks, Apple’s headset uses so-called “passthrough” AR. It has high-resolution screens and is capable of running full VR apps, but it’s also dotted with cameras that can traverse a high-resolution image of the real world – rumor has it that you’ll press a “reality dial” to switch between AR and VR. This means that it can provide the illusion of a real world with virtual objects overlaid.
Passthrough avoids some of the problems faced by AR glasses like Magic Leap and Microsoft HoloLens, such as translucent virtual objects and a limited field of view. Meta, the biggest player in consumer headsets, chose the style for its Quest Pro design last year. But the Quest Pro had a grainy, washed-out video stream and offered limited practical applications for its AR mode. A virtual office, for example, required a complicated synchronization process with your Mac or PC. And Meta has generally focused on the lower end of the VR and AR market – it also includes passthrough as a selling point on the next quest 3 at $499.
By contrast, several people have speculated that Apple’s headset might be like the Tesla Roadster: a flashy, expensive sports car that sold people on the concept of electric vehicles. “Apple makes devices in a way that is actually useful and comfortable for people and makes people care,” says Jacob Loewenstein, senior vice president of social platform 3D Spatial, which has appeared on many AR and VR devices.
“There’s going to be so much trash there, and there’s going to be some cool stuff too.”
The exact uses of Apple’s supposed technology are not yet known. CEO Tim Cook said AR is for “communication” and “connection”, and it would seem that FaceTime functionality which can render a person’s face and body. It is also said to offer access to iPad apps, games, entertainment through the Apple TV app and a version of Apple Fitness Plus. “One of the reasons why I think Apple is extremely successful in a lot of their projects is that they’re not just launching a device, they’re launching an ecosystem,” the analyst said. Gartner Tuong Nguyen, which covers the VR/AR market. “It’s this combination of different apps being applied to different use cases for different users – it’s the ‘killer app’.”
Apple apparently doesn’t expect a big early market for the device – it’s revised its expectation down to less than a million units a year from 200 million or more iPhones. Yet despite the supposed cost of the device, some are predicting a gold rush of app developers trying to replicate the success of early iPhone developers. “I was like, wait, why don’t I make a goofy version of an app that everyone loves — like, be one of the first apps to do on the Apple headset?” says Gabe Baker, vice president of Frame, the browser-based VR collaboration platform. “There’s going to be so much trash there, and there’s going to be some cool stuff too – it’s going to be a fun time.”
Apple has a ambivalent relationship with web developerswhich form a niche but notable subset of the AR/VR industry. Safari is way behind schedule support WebXR, a common standard for immersive browser-based experiences, on iOS. But the browser would be launched on its headset, which will put web-based AR in the spotlight. “We’re cautiously optimistic that Apple will make Safari a viable app on its future hardware,” says Baker. “Meta has shown that the web browser can actually be a vehicle for high-quality, immersive content, hands down, and I think Apple will want that on its headset.”
The dominance of the iPhone for over a decade has demonstrated many downsides to “it works”. Apple has mastered the walled garden, and many app developers working on it aren’t happy with the results. He’s spent years battling some top developers like Epic and Match Group in court, and others have testified in Congress to have their apps locked down and undermined by Apple’s own copycats.
Apple is still pushing in a field that has beaten some of the biggest tech companies
But for AR and VR developers, the alternative to an Apple walled garden can be a wasteland. Many applications, especially non-gaming ones, have shifted to more conventional computing devices as one headset after another has failed to capture a consumer market. A key exception was Meta, which defied expectations with its Quest 2 for VR. This raised the opposite problem: a system where some developers And regulators fear that Meta is monopolizing the fledgling industry, and some competing hardware companies have expressed irritation at the lowest prices and subsidized by Quest advertising.
“I think the other thing that’s compelling is the arms race that’s starting between Meta and Apple. We’ve never really seen these two titans go head-to-head before on a new platform,” Loewenstein says. And even for hardware makers, Apple’s entry isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the AR glasses market is small enough that any new attention to space is welcome.
Despite the excitement within the industry, Apple continues to push in a field that has beaten some of the biggest tech companies. Google and Microsoft have both launched AR headsets with flashy user-friendly apps (in Microsoft’s case, a AR edition of Minecraft) only to end up with a much less ambitious enterprise-focused product. The same goes for the richly funded startup Magic Leap.
Also, few people seem to think that AR passthrough is an endpoint for support. As Nguyen points out, a passthrough headset has basic security risks compared to a more goggle-like system: if its video stream stutters or dies out, it temporarily blinds the user. It is therefore risky to use it outside of a controlled home or office environment. “I see the Apple device as a replacement for my iMac,” says Nima Shams, vice president of DigiLens, a longtime maker of goggle-style headset optics. “I don’t see the device as a replacement for my iPhone.” Apple is also reportedly working on a seamless, non-passthrough headset, but that’s not what everyone expects to see on Monday.
There are pragmatic reasons to believe that Apple is better positioned than these companies. On the one hand, the technology To matured considerably since Google started testing Glass in 2012Microsoft announced HoloLens in 2015 and Magic Leap unveiled its first product in 2018. On the other hand, Apple has a consumer hardware track record that no other company can match. This not only includes carefully produced industrial design and interfaces like trackpads, but, in recent years, its own fairly powerful chips. “If we were faced with rumors of a similar headset made by anyone other than Apple, I don’t think it would be so successful,” says Jitesh Ubrani, research director at IDC. “Apple has huge scale, huge developer support, huge consumer support – and no one else comes close.”
But the more emotionally compelling argument is simply that Apple can make even weird products – like AirPods, compared to anything from Sperm Q-tips – Socially acceptable. As Loewenstein says, “The key has always been very, very simple: is this thing useful? Is this thing comfortable? And is this stuff cool? Meta has demonstrated the value of VR for gaming, but the company’s lack of freshness is a running joke, from the famous photo of a MWC audience strapped to helmets to CEO Mark Zuckerberg much maligned legless avatar. “I think Apple has the cool factor.”
And if not? Well, if you’ve been in the mainstream AR world for so long, you can probably handle the disappointment.