Apple’s First AR/VR Headset Won’t Be Designed for the Masses

Woman wearing VR headset Credit: Mariia Korneeva / Shutterstock
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As Apple’s long-rumoured augmented reality headset begins to take shape, it’s important to start setting our expectations for exactly what the first-generation product is going to look like and who it’s going to be designed to appeal to.

Apple has a long history of entering entirely new product categories with “version 1.0” products that are somewhat niche and pricey compared to what comes later, and there’s every reason to believe that the company’s first AR headset won’t be an exception.

We saw it with the original iPhone back in 2007, which wasn’t available on carrier contracts at all, and had to be purchased outright at a starting price of $499 for a 4GB model. While that price may seem quaint in light of today’s iPhone 12 lineup, even leaving inflation aside it was considered very costly for a cell phone, especially in an era when almost nobody purchased their phones outright.

Even more significantly, the original iPhone was extremely limited, even compared to its contemporaries. While other phones were just starting to adopt 3G, Apple stayed with the tried-and-true but slower EDGE cellular standards, and it didn’t pack in any kind of GPS, front camera, or even copy and paste.

Seven years later, the Apple Watch followed suit, with a cool but expensive and somewhat limited first-generation device that was sluggish and didn’t offer any native app support; it wasn’t until the Apple Watch Series 2 that Apple even began to find its footing and figure out what the wearable device should really be for.

So it’s unrealistic to expect Apple’s first augmented reality headset to be a fully realized mass-market product right out of the gate. Apple will almost certainly take the same iterative approach that it’s taken in other flagship product categories, and Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman agrees.

A ‘Pricey, Niche Precursor’

According to Gurman, while Apple is still on track to release its first AR headset as soon as next year, the first model is going to be an expensive first-gen product that will simply get the initial technology out there to prepare for “a more ambitious augmented reality product” that’s in the works.

A more sophisticated AR device — whether that’s a better AR headset or the much-rumoured “Apple Glass” — will take considerably longer to develop, but sources suggest that Apple considers it important to get a basic version of the new technology to market as soon as possible to give people an idea of what it will look like but also likely to try and get some more developers on board.

In fact, it looks like in this case Apple’s expectations for its initial AR headset aren’t even as optimistic as it was for the first iPhone or the first Apple Watch. While both of those were still designed to appeal to as many consumers as possible despite being in a limited form, the AR glasses are said to be a “high-end, niche product” that will point to the release of “more mainstream AR glasses” sometime down the road.

In fact, according to some Apple insiders, the first version of the AR headset is being viewed as more of a Mac Pro than a MacBook. It’s expected to be considerably more expensive than rivals — likely somewhere well north of $1,000 — and Apple is only expecting to sell one headset per day per retail store, at best, which would put the annual sales at around 180,000 units.

It’s Still Going to Be Amazing

That said, just because it’s going to be expensive doesn’t mean that Apple isn’t building a groundbreaking product, but it may also not be exactly what you’re expecting.

For example, Gurman notes that it will be “a mostly virtual reality device,” focused on gaming and communications, and while it’s expected to include some AR functionality, that’s going to be more limited. Instead, Apple is primarily aiming to contend with devices like the Oculus, PlayStation VR, and HTC’s Vive.

However, Apple is also expected to pack in chips that are more powerful than anything that we’ve yet seen — sources say that some of the chips that have been tested in the prototypes already outperform Apple’s new M1 chip.

In addition, Apple is aiming for packing in the highest-resolution displays ever found in a VR product, and it looks like there’s going to be so much going on that it’s reported that the headset may even include a fan for cooling — something that Apple just took great pains to eliminate in its newest MacBook Air.

So there’s every indication that this will be the most advanced and powerful device Apple has ever produced, although it’s also said to be working on getting it to be small enough so that users can wear it without neck strain.

According to Gurman’s sources, Apple had to cut corners by shrinking the space in front of the user’s eyes, making it impossible to wear glasses while using the headset. Instead, Apple has built a system where custom prescription lenses can be inserted into the headset.

However, as Gurman notes, this may create another regulatory hurdle for Apple to overcome, since there are rules about selling eyeglass prescriptions in many countries. Sources say that Apple has been having internal discussions about how it would handle this online and in its retail stores.

While at one point Apple was considering using an external hub to handle all the AR/VR processing to keep the headset as light as possible, that idea was reportedly nixed by Jony Ive when he was still heading up Apple’s design strategy, and the team has been forced to build an entirely standalone, battery-operated device and find other ways to reduce its weight, such as going with a fabric exterior rather than heavier aluminum or even plastic.

According to Gurman this is the “N301” device that we’ve been hearing about since late 2019, and while it’s in a late prototype stage, it’s not yet finalized, so some of this could still change, and there’s still a remote possibility that it could be scrapped entirely if there are issues that can’t be resolved to Apple’s satisfaction.

Some prototypes are said to be about the size of an Oculus Quest and include external cameras that will be used to offer some AR features, as well as things like hand-tracking and even virtual “air typing” for text input, although many of these features are said to be in the exploratory stages and may not make it into the final product.

Perhaps most significantly, Apple hasn’t yet figured out exactly what its VR headset should actually do, although of course it has some ideas. The company has yet to nail down what content and features will be included with the headset, and whether any kind of App Store will be available for the first version, which will run on a derivative of iOS that’s being called “rOS” within the company.

‘Apple Glass’

Regardless, it seems that Apple sees its first AR/VR headset as simply a big stepping stone to what it hopes will be a much bigger release — its first AR glasses — a product that’s been colloquially called “Apple Glass.”

We’ve been hearing since late 2019 that Apple already has this second product in development, which is reportedly codenamed N421, but it’s said to be in the “architecture” stage right now, which means that Apple is still working on the underlying technologies and has yet to even produce any kind of prototype.

Apple apparently began trial production for lenses last summer, which seems to align with the stage that “Apple Glass” is said to be at right now, and although Apple is hoping the product could be unveiled as early as 2023, sources that Gurman spoke with indicated that it’s more likely still “several years away,” which sounds a lot more reasonable than some of the more far-out rumours we heard last year, since the amount of miniaturization required to pack in the kind of technology that would power a set of AR glasses is downright staggering, especially one that would be up to Apple’s high standards.

However, as Gurman notes, “getting most people to wear a computer on their face” is going to be one of the bigger challenges for Apple to overcome, and it’s definitely a big part of what did in Google Glass a number of years ago.

Apple is undoubtedly hoping that by starting with an initial product that doesn’t need to try and appeal to the masses it can help to prepare the marketplace for what will eventually come, by educating consumers, building developer relationships, and continuing to invest in the underlying technologies. It’s going to be an exciting time for Apple wearables, even if it’s ultimately a more evolutionary than a revolutionary process.

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