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As Apple’s first “mixed reality” AR/VR headset begins to take shape, we’ve begun hearing reports that it will be a premium product, but now we’re getting an idea of exactly what that’s going to mean, and it sounds like Apple plans to spare no expense to make sure that it’s first augmented reality product makes as big of a splash as it possibly can.
While reports of Apple working on an augmented reality wearable aren’t new by any means, it’s only in the past year or so that the company’s plans have begun to take shape, beginning with a late 2019 report that revealed the fact that Apple was actually working toward two distinct products — an Oculus-style AR headset (codename: N301), that would be followed by a smaller pair of AR glasses (codename: N421).
Despite a brief spate of rather crazy rumours last spring that suggested the full-on glasses would be ready by now, most of the usual analysts have held to the belief that the AR/VR headset would come first — and not until early 2022.
Still, with predictions that it was going to follow the style of the Oculus Quest, it’s fair to say that many folks have been expecting something that would be a direct competitor to the other VR headsets that are on the market, likely priced with the usual Apple premium, and offering a few other features, but something that would still be within the reach of most users.
Last month, however, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman threw a bucket of cold water on that notion, indicating that Apple’s first product in the AR space will be a “pricey, niche precursor” for what’s to come, and suggesting that it would be much more in the territory of a Mac Pro than a MacBook Air.
Apple’s goal, Gurman suggested, would be to get the technology out there so that it could prepare for a “more ambitious augmented reality product’ down the road, however several other details suggest that Apple is planning to pull out all the stops to produce the most advanced and powerful mixed reality headset ever.
Smashing Through the Ceiling
Earlier this week, an analysis from JP Morgan reported that the component costs alone for the new headset were expected to easily exceed $500, which would have still pushed the retail cost into the four figures, but now it looks like that cost is going to be well into the four figures.
Specifically, The Information, which first broke the news of Apple’s plans back in late 2019, is predicting that the price point is going to land somewhere in the neighbourhood of $3,000, making it easily the most expensive mobile device Apple has ever made next to the $10,000 18K Gold Apple Watch Edition, which was in an entirely different class.
Unlike the solid gold Apple Watch, however, it sounds like Apple’s headset will pack in enough advanced technology to justify its high asking price, with advanced displays, cameras, and an insanely powerful CPU.
Gurman already noted last month that Apple has already tested chips in prototype headsets that outperform Apple’s amazing new M1 chip, along with ultra-high-resolution displays, and that the headset would be so powerful that it might actually need a cooling fan — something that’s only barely needed in Apple’s M1 MacBooks.
Now The Information is offering even more details that suggest exactly how incredible of a product this headset is going to be, noting that it will pack in “more than a dozen cameras for tracking hand movements” as well as performing real-world augmented reality input, plus two 8K displays for a “picture quality far higher than that of other consumer headsets.”
In fact, packing in 8K displays would beat out the screens found in all but the most expensive televisions. However, to save on processing power, Apple has eyeball tracking technology that it’s reportedly been working on for years that will allow it to limit full-quality 8K rendering to only those parts of the display that the user happens to be looking at, which would reduce the processing power needed to keep the displays refreshed in full 8K resolution.
A separate report this week also suggested that the headset will pack in LiDAR sensors, which seems reasonable considering Apple’s recent investments in the technology for its iPad Pro and iPhone models. While The Information makes no mention of these specifically, they’re likely part of the “more than a dozen cameras” that its report refers to. The LiDAR scanners would likely be used not only for augmented reality applications, but also for mapping the room for virtual reality purposes.
The Information also claims to have seen images of an internal “late-stage prototype” of the device, which it reports shows a “sleek, curved visor attached to the face by a mesh material and swappable headbands.” Bloomberg’s Gurman also reported last month that Apple has been working to make the device small enough and lightweight enough to allow for it to be worn without neck strain, possibly even reducing the size to the point where users who wear glasses would need to insert custom prescription lenses.
While the final price of the headset has yet to be determined, The Information’s sources say that Apple has discussed a $3,000 price tag, which would put it in the same territory as Microsoft’s $3,500 HoloLens, which Apple seems to be using as a baseline for its first headset, which would likely be targeted at the same business market as Microsoft’s product, although Apple doesn’t appear to be ruling out gaming applications either.
It also seems that part of the logic behind this strategy is the Apple realizes that the mass consumer market isn’t really ready for a mixed-reality headset anyway, since as Gurman previously noted, “getting most people to wear a computer on their face,” is still a pretty big obstacle to overcome. Hence, Apple likely doesn’t see the point in trying to sharpen its pencil and cut corners to produce an affordable headset right now, but would rather instead get the technology out there so that it can prepare the marketplace for what will eventually come, and iterate on the technology further, ultimately producing the much more highly anticipated Apple Glass.
The Information also seems to concur that this is Apple’s ultimate endgame for its AR ambitions, although it suggests that its still “years away from release” and that it also “faces steep technology hurdles,” so that despite earlier reports that Apple Glasses could arrive by 2023, that’s far from a certainty at this point.