As Apple prepares its long-rumored leap into augmented reality on Monday, doubts are clouding every step of the way. There have been reports of frequent changes in direction and skepticism within Apple’s ranks. The device was said to be difficult to manufacture and required numerous compromises. The process took years longer than Apple expected. And at a rumored $3,000, even Apple expects slow short-term sales.
But among AR professionals, the mood is jubilant. “This is the greatest thing to happen to this industry,” says Jay Wright, CEO of VR/AR collaboration platform Campfire 3D. “Whether you’re doing hardware or software. We are excited about it.”
No industry needs Apple’s “it just works” ethic like AR
Based on positive feedback from industry pioneers such as Palmer Luckey, AR hardware and software makers say Apple can finally validate a decade of trying to take the technology mainstream. Part of that optimism is due to rumors about Apple’s specs, including a lightweight design and a purported ultra-high-spec screen.
Supporters point to Apple’s history of entering the market after other companies have laid the groundwork, as happened with phones. But much of it can be summed up in two statements: Apple can sell hardware, and Apple does cool.
No technology category needs Apple’s promise of “it just works” more than AR. (This format is sometimes called “mixed reality” or “XR” just to emphasize how messy the consumer approach is.) Pure consumer VR—albeit a small market—has coalesced around relatively popular genres like fitness apps, a few common storefronts like SteamVR and the Quest store and widely used control scheme.
AR has no such guarantees.
Its hardware is very varied, ranging from bulky headsets with sophisticated tracking to smart glasses that do little more than display alerts. Its software often targets hyper-specialized business applications. There is no established consensus on control schemes.
Based on numerous leaks, Apple’s headset uses what is called “pass-through” AR. It features high-resolution screens and is capable of running full VR applications, but it’s also dotted with cameras that can cycle through a high-resolution image of the real world – rumored to be pushing a ‘reality dial’ to switch between AR and VR. This means it can offer the illusion of a real world with virtual objects superimposed on it.
Passthrough avoids some of the problems faced by AR glasses such as Magic Leap and Microsoft HoloLens, such as translucent virtual objects and a limited field of view. Meta, the biggest player in consumer headphones, chose the style for its Quest Pro design last year. But the Quest Pro had a grainy, washed-out video stream and offered limited practical uses for its AR mode. A virtual office, for example, requires a complicated synchronization process with your Mac or PC. And Meta as a whole has focused on the lower end of the VR and AR market — also including passing as a selling point on the upcoming $499 Quest 3.
On the other hand, many people speculated that Apple’s headset might be like the Tesla Roadster: a shiny, expensive sports car that sold people on the concept of electric vehicles. “Apple makes devices in a way that’s actually useful and convenient for people and makes people care about them,” said Jacob Lowenstein, senior vice president of 3D social platform Spatial, which has appeared on multiple AR and VR devices.
“There’s going to be so much trash out there, and there’s going to be great stuff as well.”
The exact uses of Apple’s rumored technology are not yet known. CEO Tim Cook said AR is about “communication” and “connection” and will reportedly include a FaceTime capability that can render a person’s face and body. It is also said to offer access to iPad apps, games, entertainment via the Apple TV app and a version of Apple Fitness Plus. “One of the reasons I think Apple has been extremely successful in many of their endeavors is that they don’t just release a device, they launch an ecosystem,” said Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen, who covers the VR/AR market. “It’s that mix of different apps applied to different use cases for different users — that’s the ‘killer app’.”
Apple reportedly doesn’t expect a big early market for the device — it has revised its expectations down to under a million units a year, compared to 200 million or more iPhones. Still, despite rumors about the device’s price, some predict a gold rush of app designers trying to replicate the success of early iPhone developers. “I was like, wait, why don’t I make a wacky version of an app that everyone loves — like being one of the first apps to do Apple’s headset?” says Gabe Baker, vice president of browser-based VR collaboration platform Frame. “There’s going to be so much rubbish out there and there’s going to be great stuff too – it’s going to be a fun time.”
Apple has an ambivalent relationship with web developers, who form a niche but notable subset of the AR/VR industry. Safari lags far behind in supporting WebXR, a common standard for browser-based immersive experiences, on iOS. But the browser is reportedly launching on its headset, which will put web-based AR in the spotlight. “We’re cautiously optimistic that Apple will indeed make Safari a viable app on their upcoming hardware,” says Baker. “Meta has shown that the web browser can actually be a vehicle for high-quality, immersive content, and I think Apple will want that on its headsets.”
The dominance of the iPhone for more than a decade has demonstrated many flaws of “it just works.” Apple has mastered the walled garden, and many app developers who work in it are not happy with the results. It has spent years battling some prominent developers like Epic and Match Group in court, and others have testified in Congress about their apps being blocked and subverted by Apple’s own imitators.
Apple is still entering an area that has surpassed some of the biggest companies in technology
But for AR and VR developers, the alternative to Apple’s walled garden may be a desert. Many applications – especially those not related to gaming – moved to more conventional computing devices as one headset after another failed to capture the consumer market. A key exception is Meta, which defied expectations with its Quest 2 for VR. That raised the opposite problem: a system where some developers and regulators worry that Meta could monopolize the nascent industry, and some rival hardware companies have expressed irritation at the Quest’s low, ad-subsidized prices.
“I think the other thing that’s compelling is the arms race that’s starting between Meta and Apple. We’ve never had these two titans go head-to-head on a new platform before,” says Lowenstein. And even for hardware makers, Apple’s entry isn’t necessarily a bad thing—the market for AR glasses is small enough that any new attention to the space is welcome.
Despite the excitement in the industry, Apple is still entering a field that has surpassed some of the biggest companies in technology. Both Google and Microsoft debuted AR headsets with brilliant consumer apps (in Microsoft’s case, an AR edition of the Minecraft) only to end up with a far less ambitious enterprise-focused product. So did the generously funded startup Magic Leap.
Also, few people seem to think that the transition to AR is an end point for wearer. As Nguyen points out, a pass-through headset poses major safety risks compared to a more glasses-like system: If its video power stutters or goes dark, it temporarily blinds the wearer. This makes it risky to use outside of a controlled home or office environment. “I see Apple’s device as a replacement for my iMac,” says Nima Shams, vice president at DigiLens, a longtime maker of glasses-style optics for headphones. “I don’t see the device being a replacement for my iPhone.” Apple is also reportedly working on see-through, pass-through headphones, but that’s not what anyone expected to see on Monday.
There are pragmatic reasons to believe that Apple is in a better position than these companies. On the one hand, technology there is has grown significantly since Google began testing Glass in 2012, Microsoft announced HoloLens in 2015, and Magic Leap unveiled its first product in 2018. On the other hand, Apple has consumer hardware experience that almost no other company has can be compared. This includes not only carefully crafted industrial design and interfaces such as trackpads, but in recent years also quite powerful chips of their own. “If we were faced with rumors of a similar handset made by someone other than Apple, I don’t think it would be as successful,” says IDC research manager Jitesh Ubrani. “Apple has massive scale, massive developer support, massive consumer support – and no one else even comes close to that.”
But the most emotionally compelling argument is simply that Apple can make even weird-looking products — like AirPods, compared to everything from Q-tips to sperm — socially acceptable. As Loewenstein says, “the key has always been very, very simple: Is this thing useful? Is this something comfortable? And is this thing cool?” Meta showcases the value of VR for gaming, but the company’s uneasiness is nothing short of a joke, from the famous photo of an MWC audience strapped into headsets to the much-maligned legless avatar of CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “I think Apple has a cool factor.”
And if it doesn’t? Well, if you’ve stuck around in the consumer AR world this long, you can probably handle the frustration.