OPINION PIECE

Apple's VR headset: Only the principle of hope

Apple's VR headset: Only the principle of hope

We're just days away from the unveiling of the fabled VR/AR headset. A new product from Apple that crashes hard into reality.

In 2016, when the first VR headsets made it onto the faces of tech enthusiasts, Apple CEO Cook hardly anything good to say about the new devices. "Nobody in here—few people in here—think it’s acceptable to be tethered to a computer walking in here and sitting down," he said at a tech conference in Utah 2016. "Few people are going to view that it’s acceptable to be enclosed in something, because we’re all social people at heart."

The fairy tale of virtual reality isolation has long persisted, largely ignoring the social nature of many VR applications, especially popular multiplayer ones. But isolation because of the face computer is obviously a subjective thing that doesn't fit with trained social behavior: What I can't see is either not existent and therefore not social, or it scares me because I can't see it.

Cook always believed that augmented reality, not virtual reality, is the future. That's why the tech giant from Cupertino set up its own innovation department during the great immersion revival.

The goal: everyday AR headsets that are lightweight and fashionable.

Physics laughed as Apple made plans

Quietly, and accompanied only by constant rumors, Apple has been pumping billions into development for seven years. Nobody sees anything tangible: Notorious leakers like Gurman and Kuo keep fanning the flames. But the "Technitus Interruptus" happens again and again: The presentation is delayed, next year is supposed to be the time, this time for real.

There are more and more signals that it could really happen on June 9, 2023, at Apple's in-house trade show, the Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC): Apple's XR headset will be unveiled.

Wait, a Mixed Reality headset? That means it's not everyday AR glasses? So, it's just a VR headset with an AR passthrough? What happened to their supposed innovations?

"After initially setting its sights on a lightweight pair of augmented-reality glasses, Apple gradually drifted toward something that felt more like existing devices because of technological constraints, the desire to get a product on the market and internal disagreements," Gurman writes in a recent analysis on Bloomberg. The article is titled "Apple's New Headset Meets Reality.

After all, Apple is just cooking with water

So instead of being the big innovation that makes social metaverse technology practical and fashionable for daily use, we get a VR headset with AR passthrough, reminiscent of ski goggles, connected by a power cord to an external battery worn on the hip. The reason: to save weight and reduce heat.

I find this clever and have often wondered why such a solution has not been used before, for example with Quest 2 or Quest Pro. The cable is no excuse: With smart cable routing along the back, the cable is hardly noticeable, and the battery can be quickly "hot swapped". The saved weight could indeed lead to an enormous gain in comfort, which would be a step towards longer usage time - a key factor for market penetration of this technology.

Apple - surprise! - is also just cooking with water: "The product’s design is also a tacit admission that the company, like others that have made mixed-reality headsets, hasn’t been able to solve some core technological problems."

Instead, we're getting an Apple headset that's right in line with previous XR glasses releases: it's a mixed reality headset like the Quest Pro or perhaps the Vive XR Elite, certainly with various strengths and some weaknesses. But it remains to be seen if it's better than anything the competition has released so far.

“They’re good at things like this”

"It can be tough to start a market, but you have to hand it to Apple. They’re good at things like this." What Peggy Johnson, CEO of the over-ambitious and once-failed AR company Magic Leap, says here is something I hear over and over from the Apple bubble:

Apple gets it right. They've created a perfect ecosystem that works together intuitively and seamlessly like no other. Apple's hardware and software are designed for the best user experience. If anyone can do it, Apple can.

The evocative mantra of the "Appologists" ignores one thing: Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are not just another operating system, not just another iPhone. They are not even a new computer, because that would mean that the rules and standards of PCs, notebooks, and even smartphones apply to VR and AR. They only are in a very limited way.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are an entirely new medium. A new way of interacting with and experiencing digital content. Of course, you can copy digital to immersive, similar to what is still happening in the so-called digital transformation: Put the paper form or newspaper into a PDF or ePaper and call it digitally transformed. Copy your flat game to VR and call it virtually realized.

We know from experience that this doesn't work. It's not convincing to use a flat mobile app through a clunky data headset with a laser pointer. Skyrim or Fallout 4 only became great in VR after the modding community refined the loveless VR copy with appropriate UI/UX updates. And the most successful VR games in years are still the ones that were natively designed and made for VR. It's no surprise that Beat Saber is still the most successful VR game of all time.

Does Apple understand this?

Apple Reality: Customers should wear the headset all day long

Now Apple wants to set up a new XR paradigm, where the VR/AR headset comes without VR controllers: Hand tracking will be the new input method. I am curious to see what magic Apple will use to make hand tracking so much better than Meta. There is already comparatively good hand tracking on the Quest headsets, but it is still not good enough for me to use it all the time, especially in applications.

With this and eye-tracking, Apple hopes to convince about 900,000 people a year (the original numbers were up to three million) to buy an XR headset that might cost $3,000. Gurman writes, "Apple's goal is for customers to eventually wear the device all day and have it replace everyday activities like playing games, surfing the web, writing emails, making FaceTime video calls, collaborating in apps, exercising and even meditating."

Innovative Apple sounds like absolutely every VR/AR startup in the past seven years. It's the same slogans we hear from Meta at the annual resurrection festival for VR, Connect. HTC once tried to go big with Meditation and failed miserably. Microsoft still owes me the Minecraft version on my living room table.

Again, the big question is: Why?

What does it take to really succeed? It's the answer to the question: Why?

Until now, this has been Apple's bread and butter: telling me why I should use an iPhone, an iPad, or EarPods. This - along with a certain fashion-driven elitism combined with technically advanced hardware - still creates and serves a gigantic consumer demand. I immediately believe that Apple can and will make an excellent XR headset.

But can Apple also answer the mixed reality question: Why should I use this great tech-thingy? I hope so, but I doubt it. Even if all the iPad apps are available on the headset: Why should I use 2D apps in an XR headset when I can actually use them much easier and better the traditional way?

The multi-monitor aspect shows up: With the headset, I can theoretically do so many things at once, have apps open, face-timing simultaneously, and that's even if I only have a single - or no! - physical screen.

Sounds great, as always (Meta tells similar stories all the time). But: "Features such as the ability to function as an external Mac monitor and to make multiperson video calls are less advanced than the company initially intended, though it hopes to improve them." Not exactly Apple, but the same technical and content shortcomings as its competitors. Instead, Apple is hoping the XR headset will somehow work its way through, like the Apple Watch.

"It was very clear what the iPhone and iPad would do, but the watch meandered all over the place,” a person with knowledge of the product says. “The headset will be similar, but there is hope that third-party apps will save it."

An internal presentation reportedly suggested that people would wear the Apple XR headset at parties in the physical world and interact with others via passthrough.

Well, good luck with that.

Sources: Bloomberg