By John Gruber
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The headset, which Apple has yet to formally announce, will be jam-packed with features Apple will have to get just right if the product is going to have the kind of revolutionary impact the original iPhone did on the smartphone market.
I don’t know why every possible new product from Apple is always framed as though it needs to be an iPhone-esque success or it’s a bust. The iPhone is likely unique in all of computing and consumer electronics history. The iPad, Apple Watch, and AirPods are all huge hits, but not one of them is iPhone-size. Looking at Apple’s 2022 revenue, wearables, iPad, and Mac combined account for about half the revenue of the iPhone. But all of them are hit products. A new AR/VR headset product category that generates the revenue that iPad or Mac or Apple Watch does should be considered a huge success, not a disappointment.
(I also don’t understand why rumor reports like this seemingly always are accompanied by an artist’s rendition of the hardware. It’s distracting at best and misleading for most.)
For example, the headset will use small motors to automatically adjust its lenses, ensuring that the wearer has the best possible viewing experience. A physical dial on the headset will allow users to quickly toggle between complete immersion in VR and the ability to see their surroundings.
A “digital crown” -like dial for switching between AR and VR jibes with what I’ve heard, too.
As of last year, the headset used an external battery pack tethered by cable as opposed to a battery integrated into the headband. The design choice has been controversial among Apple’s engineers given the company’s preference for cable-free designs.
This sounds clunky as hell to me. I think it’s already a huge ask to expect users to strap on a headset to use this platform. The history of personal computing has been in the direction of ever more seamless dipping in and out when using new devices. Think about how you can, if you want, just glance at your phone. Pick it up, glance, put it down. The Apple Watch is designed entirely around the idea of just occasionally glancing at it. A VR headset cannot be just dipped into and out of, even if the battery is self contained. An external battery pack tethered by a cable is another level of hassle. The whole point of AirPods is that wearing a device on your head that’s tethered to a cable kind of sucks. I’m in no way prejudging Apple’s headset — which I know very little about — but a battery pack tethered via a cable sounds to me like a deal-breaker. Either Ma is wrong, Apple is about to jump the shark, or this device is going to be so utterly compelling that a tethered battery is worth the hassle.
The company has good reason to be cautious. Meta Platforms’ launch of its first AR/VR headset, the Quest Pro, has mostly fallen flat with consumers and critics, many of whom say the device’s software is half baked and the product lacks a clear purpose.
Apple should be cautious with any new product category. But Facebook’s failures on the VR headset front are no more reason to be cautious than, say, all the shitty tablets PC makers tried to sell before the iPad.
Apple’s headset is also expected to be far more expensive than most of the company’s other devices, as well as other VR headsets: It has discussed pricing it around $3,000 or more depending on its configuration, according to four people with knowledge of the conversations.
It was widely reported in the run-up to the iPad’s debut that it would start at $1,000, but in fact started at just $500. But even if off by a factor of 2, $1,500 would be pricey. If it really does cost $3,000, I don’t think that’s a deal-breaker, but it’d be a sign that the platform is still years away from large-scale adoption.
The headset has inward-facing displays for each eye and a large outward-facing display on the front of the device. The external display can show the facial expressions of the person wearing the headset, along with other types of imagery, to people around the user, which is meant to reduce the isolation users might otherwise feel when wearing the device.
This sounds cringe-y to me. Again, I’m not prejudging something I haven’t seen. But I lack the imagination to see how this could be anything but weird.
The headset will give users a 120-degree field of view, which is more than the Meta Quest Pro’s 106-degree field and the same as that of the Valve Index, a high-end consumer virtual reality headset powered by a PC. Apple’s headset will allow people who wear glasses to magnetically clip in custom prescription lenses.
So glasses-wearers will need to spend more — on top of $3,000? — just to see the displays clearly?
Third-party bluetooth wireless headphones won’t work well with the headset as this results in too much lag between what users see on the screen and what they hear. There also isn’t an audio jack on the device to plug in wired headphones.
Wait, is Ma writing for The Verge or for The Information?
People who have worked on the headset say Apple doesn’t appear to have focused much on gaming — for example, it isn’t expected to release a dedicated gaming controller, at least not yet.
If not gaming, then what’s the point?
Apple sees videoconferencing as a potential killer app for the headset, enabling digital avatars that accurately mimic a user’s facial and body movements.
No one is going to buy a $3,000 headset for videoconferencing.
It also conducted early software experiments that allowed users to, for example, drag a maps app off a Mac screen and use it to display a 3D model of a city that appeared, through the headset, to sit atop a table.
No one is going to buy a $3,000 headset for looking at 3D tabletop maps.
Another project by Apple employees in Culver City, Calif., code-named Z50, worked on other content for the device, including educational content that allowed users to observe the Apollo moon landing.
Apple is building a new operating system for the device that can also run existing apps for iOS, the iPhone’s operating system, though these apps will have to be shown in 2D format.
That’s my understanding — UIKit and SwiftUI apps running in 2D “windows” within the 3D AR/VR space. (Could be the thing that makes the whole Stage Manager story make sense.)
Apple’s RealityKit engine will be the only way developers can build AR apps for the headset, though there is a plan to allow Unity Technologies to be the first partner to offer full VR experiences in the headset through its game engine.
So are they focused on games or not? I appreciate Ma’s reporting this project but he seems to be trying to have it both ways on the gaming front. While the Mac remains an also-ran platform for gaming, given Apple’s enormous focus on gaming revenue from the App Store for iOS, I find it hard to believe that gaming wouldn’t be a high priority for a headset with excellent graphics and spatial audio.
This headset project is very much real and, I believe, very much shipping this year. But the fundamental question remains: What’s the point? Think back to Steve Jobs’s presentation announcing the original iPad — the nut of the whole keynote was Jobs explaining where the iPad might fit between an iPhone and MacBook. If it didn’t serve some tasks not just a little but a lot better than either an iPhone or Mac, there was no point to the iPad. The same is true for this headset. And if it costs $3,000 and/or requires a tethered battery strapped around your waist, the “this better be an awesome experience” bar is raised even higher.