This past weekend I sat around a table with three friends and spent an hour or so cracking jokes, shooting the breeze, and playing a little poker. I’m in the Bay Area, but they were in San Diego, North Carolina, and Canada. Yep–we played VR poker, which (I’ve been informed) means we were actually having a good time in the metaverse.
While Apple’s not rushing to embrace the term, reports indicate that the company has invested a lot of research-and-development money into launching a new product line that intersects with an “area of interest” that Apple CEO Tim Cook has talked about for several years now.
So here I am, fresh from the metaverse–well, playing poker on a Meta Quest 2 headset–to consider the potential arc of Apple’s next big product category. The company has been preparing for this moment for a long time, and this might be the year we finally see Apple’s first VR product. But will it be the next Apple Watch–or the next HomePod?
Laying the groundwork
It’s no wonder that Tim Cook began to pump up AR and VR as far back as 2017, when he said, “I think AR is big and profound and this is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it.” That was the year Apple introduced ARKit, new technology (that Apple has kept building on) that added augmented-reality features to the iPhone and iPad, and introduced those concepts to everyone developing apps for the App Store.
Even at the time, there were rumors that Apple had big plans for AR and VR down the road. But it takes time, and it’ll probably be more than five years since the introduction of the first version of ARKit that Apple will ship a dedicated device for AR or VR. But think about it this way: Apple’s tools for developers to deploy AR and VR experiences are refined with five years of shipping, and app developers have had plenty of time to experiment.
Apple’s potential competitors in the AR/VR space, most notably Meta, have been at this for some time. How can Apple roll into a new market and compete immediately? By leveraging the mass of developers who already know how to build iPhone apps, of course. ARKit and other foundational Apple technologies like Metal have helped contribute to cool iPhone game demos, but they will soon be asked to populate a new AR/VR version of the App Store.
Sometimes Apple’s big-picture strategies are best viewed not on a roadmap but by looking at its seemingly unrelated feature introductions and noticing how they might be pointing at something larger.
Nobody is going to win points for noticing that ARKit pointed the way toward a future Apple headset. But what about Memoji? Sure, Apple’s animated, customizable and personalized emojis were naturals for iMessage stickers. But Apple is slowly turning them into your official avatar for Apple services. You can have them represent you on iMessage, your iCloud account, and even the login screen of your Mac. They can perform animated actions, you can dress them, and they support an enormous array of personalization features.
During our VR poker game, my friend Chip was mortified to discover that he hadn’t properly connected up his avatar and was wearing a goatee. Meanwhile, my avatar was wearing a black long-sleeved henley–and so, coincidentally, was I. My point is, to interact with people in VR you need to be represented by an avatar. Apple has spent years building that system–and training us how to use it.
There’s more, from LiDAR scanning to Neural Engine innovations to the simple fact that optimizing for big power but a low energy footprint doesn’t just work on smartphones but on head-mounted hardware. Apple’s been building to this for a long time.
The HomePod problem
If reports from the likes of Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman are to be believed–and Gurman’s sources are generally quite good–Apple’s first VR product is going to be… a bit pricey. The Oculus Quest 2 starts at $300; Apple’s headset is rumored to be in the $2,000 range. Even for Apple, that’s a big premium! Now, it’s true that the Quest is older tech and that Meta is rumored to be working on a much higher-end headset. But still. $2,000?
I’m still not entirely convinced that Apple’s first VR product will truly be made for the masses. One way to assure that would be to price it out of the range of all but the hardest-core users, allowing Apple to treat it more like a developer kit and experiment than a real consumer product. It’s not a very Apple-like move, but it’s possible.
I have no doubt that, as reports suggest, Apple is planning to build a best-in-class product. With dual 8K OLED screens and computing power in line with the M1 Max processor of the MacBook Pro, Apple’s headset may be able to create an unparalleled sensation of reality inside a virtual world.
But what if people don’t care enough about the quality to overlook the price? That was the problem with the original HomePod. Apple was late to the intelligent speaker market, so it decided to blow the competition out of the water with high quality at a high price. The competition did respond, eventually–Amazon and Google will now sell you high-quality, high-priced versions of their smart speakers–but Apple completely missed the core of the market, which was quite happy to spend $99 on a lesser speaker instead of $349 for a better one. Not even the power of the Apple brand could change that.
If Apple comes out with a very expensive, state-of-the-art VR rig and sells it as for developers and for “the curious,” ahead of a more broadly affordable version in 2023, I’ll breathe a sigh of relief. If it releases a no-compromises $2000 headset in the face of cheaper competition, it risks digging itself a hole that will take a lot of effort to escape from.
What does this thing do?
This leads us, inexorably, to the final question: What will the Apple Vision (or whatever it’s called) actually do?
Games are obvious, but necessary. Apple will encourage iOS developers to build new versions of their games, as well as completely new games, to support VR. I imagine Apple will equip the headset with high-quality cameras, too, allowing a “see-through” AR mode that’s similar to what can currently be experienced behind an iPhone screen, but far more immersive.
3D TVs may have been a flop, but Hollywood is still making 3D movies, and I expect Apple to embrace movie viewing and concert-going via VR. I’ve watched a few movies in VR on my Oculus Quest 2, and while the quality isn’t great–the Quest’s displays are pretty low resolution–it’s actually a surprisingly decent experience. Roll in SharePlay, support for the TV app, and 3D releases of new Apple TV+ shows and movies, and you can start to see a new way to experience entertainment with your friends.
And then there’s FaceTime. Yes, nobody wants to see you with a headset on, but Apple can use your Memoji and some face-tracking sensors to create a virtual space for group calls, with some people on VR and some people attending via standard camera.
The list goes on. In fact, I would challenge everyone who reads this article to pay attention to every new software and hardware feature Apple introduces in 2022 and ask themselves, “What are the AR/VR implications of this feature?”
Apple’s been getting ready for this for years. And while Apple’s first VR device will be expensive and underpowered compared to its second, third, and fourth, it will still be the culmination of at least five years of effort. I have to admit, I’m interested to see Apple’s vision for virtual worlds–and I hope that, somewhere in there, there’s room for a friendly poker game among Memojis.