The Billions-Dollar VR/AR Headset Question

Matthew Ball wrote a thoughtful, deeply-considered essay worth your attention, “Why VR/AR Gets Farther Away as It Comes Into Focus”:

Throughout 2015 and 2016, Mark Zuckerberg repeated his belief that within a decade, “normal-looking” AR glasses might be a part of daily life, replacing the need to bring out a smartphone to take a call, share a photo, or browse the web, while a big-screen TV would be transformed into a $1 AR app. Now it looks like Facebook won’t launch a dedicated AR headset by 2025 — let alone an edition that hundreds of millions might want.

In 2016, Epic Games founder/CEO Tim Sweeney predicted not only that within five to seven years, we would have not just PC-grade VR devices but also that these devices would have shrunk down into Oakley-style sunglasses. Seven years later, this still seems at best seven years away.

The appeal and utility of all-day AR glasses is obvious. But we are obviously very far away from such devices being possible, at any price. And I don’t think such devices will ever be goggles with a screen, using cameras to show the real world. I think they must be see-through lenses that somehow include display technology that can project opaque objects and virtual “screens” within your field of vision. I am convinced we will get there. I am equally convinced we are not close to being able to make such devices.

It’s like Alan Kay’s 1972 Dynabook concept, which clearly articulated the laptops and tablets that now dominate personal computing, and but we’re as far from practical AR glasses today as we were from Kay’s Dynabook in the early ’80s, if not the late ’70s, with several extremely difficult technical problems to be solved. The original PowerBooks didn’t arrive until 1991. Or perhaps AR glasses are to VR goggles as the smartphone is to the laptop, and as the laptop is to the desktop PC. The modern smartphone, I would argue, is just a pocket-sized Dynabook. Mass-market laptops took over a decade to arrive after desktop PCs. The iPhone took about 15 years after the PowerBook. VR goggles are seemingly poised to arrive about 15 years after the iPhone.1

My strong gut feeling is that mass-market all-day AR glasses won’t be feasible until 15 or so years after the first sensational VR goggles. They’ll require that much of, and that many, generational leaps forward: chip miniaturization, battery tech, display tech, and sensor tech.

Ball, on the use-case question for VR/XR goggles today:

The examples listed above are technically impressive, meaningful, and better than ever. But the future was supposed to have arrived by now. In 2023, it’s difficult to say that a critical mass of consumers or businesses believe there’s a “killer” AR/VR/MR experience in market today; just familiar promises of the killer use cases that might be a few years away. These devices are even farther from substituting for the devices we currently use (and it doesn’t seem like they’re on precipice of mainstream adoption, either). There are some games with strong sales — a few titles have done over $100MM — but none where one might argue that, if only graphics were to improve by X%, large swaths of the population would use VR devices or those titles on a regular basis. I strongly prefer doing VR-based presentations to those on Zoom — where I spend 30-60 minutes staring at a camera as though no one else is there. But the experience remains fraught; functionality is limited; and onboarding other individuals is rarely worth the benefit because its participants seem to find these benefits both few and small. When the iPhone launched, Steve Jobs touted it did three distinct things — MP3 player, phone, internet communicator — better at launch than the single-use devices then on the market. The following year, the iPhone launched its App Store and “There’s an App for That” proliferated, with tens of millions doing everything they could on the device. The “killer app” was that it already had dozens of them.

This is, quite literally, the billions-dollar question: What are the intended use cases for Apple’s headset? After you buy it, unbox it, and power it on, what are you supposed to do with it? What features and experiences will seem worth spending a thousand or even thousands of dollars? I ponder this every day and I come up short:

  • Games — The visual appeal of a VR headset for gaming is obvious. But what’s the input story for an Apple headset that doesn’t come with handheld controller hardware? If Apple hasn’t been able to make its TV set-top box a major gaming platform after 16 years, how likely are they to do it for a headset priced like a premium PC, not like a gaming console?

  • Movies and TV — The visual appeal of a headset for watching video content is also obvious. In theory it’d be great while sitting on a plane or train — both visually and aurally immersive, like AirPods Pro but for both your vision and hearing. But who’s going to think that’s worth a thousand dollars, let alone perhaps thousands, when you’re still travelling with and carrying-on both an iPhone and a MacBook or iPad? Now that I carry tiny AirPods Pro with me everywhere I go, I don’t pack over-the-ear headphones (like, say, AirPods Max) in my travel kit, for reasons of bulk and weight — and Apple’s purportedly imminent VR/XR headset is almost certainly heavier and larger than AirPods Max.

  • Virtual meetings and FaceTime-style calls — Supposedly meetings in virtual reality with headsets are far more compelling than via Zoom with desktop/laptop/tablet displays and speakers. For the sake of argument, let’s just concede that that’s true. But for a $1,000+ headset to be compelling for such use presents a chicken-and-egg problem: it’s only possible when all or at least most of the people in the meetings are wearing compatible headsets. A virtual meeting where everyone else is participating Zoom-style but you are wearing a VR headset is going to make you look weird. And while FaceTime is phenomenally popular and much-used for personal calls, it is an utter non-entity for business meetings. Even Apple itself uses Webex for remote work meetings. Every successful platform Apple has ever established has been fundamentally driven by fun. The Apple II was a fun computer. The Macintosh was even more fun. The iPod and Apple TV are entirely about entertainment. The iPhone was the first fun phone. Apple Watch is Apple’s least fun platform, but I’d argue it’s the most “fun” wristwatch ever made. I suppose it’s true that work meetings in VR are more fun than via Zoom because they’re so much more immersive, but they can’t be more immersive than meetings in real life, and in-person real-life work meetings are seldom “fun”, and typically are dreadfully un-fun.

  • Personal computing via virtual projected displays — Mark Gurman’s latest report on the headset claims it “will be able to show immersive video content, serve as an external display for a connected Mac, and replicate many functions of iPhones and iPads”. But if you’re connected to a MacBook with a built-in display, why go through the hassle of carrying around and strapping on a headset? The obvious answer is that virtual displays in the headset might be far “larger” than even a 16-inch laptop display, and bigger displays are better. But all reports suggest that Apple’s headset will offer a 4K display per eye. 4K is generally 3,840 × 2,160 pixels. But Apple’s old 27-inch iMac and current Studio Display are 5K: 5,120 × 2,880 pixels. I don’t see how a headset with only 4K per eye can possibly simulate a virtual display with the field-of-view size and can’t-perceive-the-individual-pixels “retina” quality of a Studio Display. At your desk, I can’t imagine how wearing a headset would be better than sitting in front of a Studio Display. When travelling — even if your “travel” is no farther than your couch or the local coffee shop — it doesn’t seem worthwhile to wear a headset when your MacBook already has an excellent display, even if only 13 inches. Perhaps I simply lack imagination in this regard, and the experience will be far more compelling than I think it would be. But I just don’t see people spending $1,000+ to do their computing work wearing a headset when their MacBook already has a display built in, and the ability to see and participate in the real world around your display is inherent and entirely natural. If you’re carrying a hardware keyboard and a mouse/trackpad, why not carry an all-in-one laptop? And if you’re not carrying a hardware keyboard and mouse/trackpad, you’re never going to be as productive as you’d be if you did.2 And I haven’t even mentioned compute performance or battery life.

I can’t think of any other use cases for a VR/XR headset. I cannot believe that such a headset would be intended for wearing around as you go about daily life, augmenting the real world with virtual displays and ambient contextual information. That’s what we need AR glasses for, not VR goggles.

As I’ve repeated in my recent speculation about Apple’s headset, I am not dismissing it in advance. Quite the opposite — I look forward to experiencing it with great anticipation. I believe Apple must have answers to the question of why we will want to buy it, carry it, and use it in addition to and alongside all the devices we already buy, carry, and use. Why else bring it to market? But damned if I can imagine those answers, given the state of chip, display, and battery technology today.

  1. One can certainly argue that there was a solid market for smartphones about 5 years before the iPhone — the heyday of BlackBerry and Symbian. Similarly, there have been popular VR headsets for sale — PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, and Facebook’s Oculus and Quest — for about 5 years. The Macintosh came about 5 years after the command-line Apple II. There were crappy but serviceable notebook computers 5 years before the PowerBook. So the pattern I’m talking about seems to be that it takes about 10 years to start one of these generational leaps with clumsy primordial products, and another 5 years for Apple to hit upon and ship the paradigm that really sticks and winds up defining the entire category henceforth. It’s not that Apple is seldom first — they’re never first, because they don’t ship their prototypes. ↩︎

  2. Do you type as well on an iPad touchscreen as you do on a real keyboard? Do you think Apple is going to ship a virtual reality keyboard where you move your fingers in the air that works as well as even an iPad touchscreen keyboard? I do not. ↩︎︎