The Reality

Trying to win VR & AR at the same time means losing both.

Mark Gurman for Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. is ramping up work on a mixed-reality headset, its first major new product category since the Apple Watch, and has renamed the accompanying software in the latest sign of an approaching debut.
In offering both AR and VR technologies, Apple’s new headset takes a different tack than most existing models from companies like Meta and HTC Corp.

It's a safe bet to say we'll be seeing this long-rumored product in 2023 as Gurman's reporting gets as close to a "sure thing" as possible in the fraught world of Apple rumors. While on television the other day he stated the headset has been in the works for at least the past seven years, signifying a strong possibility that Apple expects entering this product category to be a seismic shift in the way we interact with devices and the world around us.

Apple's incoming foray into the headset market already feels like a bit of a misstep if these rumors are to be believed. Price and form-factor aside1, the thing that most puzzles me is the commitment to "mixed" reality instead of a focus on either augmented or virtual reality. Since the unveiling of the Oculus Rift, VR has been a hotbed of conversation and a totem by which companies like Meta né Facebook stand by, investing all of their resources into making sure they don't miss "the next big wave." While I do see virtual reality and virtual spaces as an eventual massively-adopted method of interaction, it's going to take a long time for that wave to get big enough to excite rightfully skeptical shareholders.

That said, Meta is correct to bet big on virtual reality, despite being much too early (and despite my own feelings about the company being a reprehensible entity). Their strides with devices like the Quest lineup — headsets that don't require an active connection to a computer and sold for somewhat reasonable prices — turn a once cost-prohibitive and technologically-cumbersome niche into a product consumers are legitimately interested in trying out. The big issue with virtual reality at the moment, though, is the lack of any real function in daily life. Meta hopes to eventually solve this via virtual spaces and offices for users to coexist within2, most public examples of which become memes instantaneously.

This is a real screenshot of Mark Zuckerberg unveiling legs to the world.

The time it takes to create a compelling and proprietary VR world has left Meta in a position where their current focus for the Quest lies in gaming, an industry whose bread and butter is building and allowing players to inhabit virtual spaces. Porting games like Resident Evil 4 and Among Us to the Quest makes sense when it comes to providing unique VR experiences, but also keeps the headset firmly planted in niche. Meta doesn't want niche. Long-term, Meta wants mass market adoption. Unfortunately for them, the idea of putting on a headset and isolating yourself from the outside world is already a nonstarter for most people — when it also demands a heavy cost investment, the possibility of requiring additional computing power, and contains scant software of note, it becomes a ridiculous ask of anyone outside the enthusiast market.

Given these obstacles, I don't think the road to mass adoption of virtual reality actually starts with virtual reality, it starts instead with augmented reality — a technology that can quickly prove its function if presented in a frictionless way. While even the best VR headsets demand isolation and escapism, a hypothetical product focused first and foremost on augmented reality would be all about enhancing the world around you rather than hiding from it.

It's not hard to imagine the uses for a device that cleanly presents contextual information about your current environment, because most use-cases exist in some form or another on our phones right now — directions towards a destination projected onto the street in front of you, synopses and ratings for books you check out at the store, envisioning furniture in a living space before buying it, etc. But it's the act of opening an app, navigating to its (likely buried) AR options, waiting for the camera to open, and then waiting for the information to process that's currently creating the friction preventing the technology from really feeling usable. This friction hypothetically goes away when a device is built from the ground-up to facilitate these kinds of interactions. The way my Apple Watch pings to ask if I'm exercising while going for a brisk walk or reminds me to stand throughout the day, an augmented reality device could act much the same for providing helpful information that reinforces and heightens our place in the world.

For when you want to see what a big yellow armchair would look like on your desk.

This is why I've found the prospect of an Apple headset focused on AR so exciting. The yearly WWDC segments about ARKit, their augmented reality framework for iPhones and iPads, indicated to me that the oft-rumored device would offload its processing to the other more powerful Apple products in your ecosystem. The idea of the iPhone in my pocket bearing the brunt of the load when it came to providing contextual information to my eyes meant the headset could take on more aesthetically pleasing designs, not weighed down by the need for hefty onboard chips or the massive batteries required to power them. This thing could be sleek, maybe even stylish if we got lucky, and come with something akin to the AirPods' H-line of chips to ensure the wireless flow of information and ease of connectivity to match what users expect from Apple devices today. I've been thinking about a device like this for so long I feel like I could reach out and grab it. It feels so obviously like the future.

Of course, as with most unfounded speculation like this, the truth is a fair bit muddier than the image I'd conjured up in my head. Reporting steadily seems to indicate the device will be invested in providing AR and VR experiences in equal measure, but I worry that any investment in the latter will hamper the viability of the former if they're to exist within the same product. The headset described in these recent reports sounds cumbersome at best, and at worst adjacent to Google Glass in the kinds of ire it will draw if worn and used in public. Imagine yourself sitting in a cafe, wire tethered from your bulky headset to the battery in your back pocket, trying to look normal, trying to feel like other people in the cafe aren't in the middle of uploading photos of you to Twitter.

It feels like Apple is trying to gain a foothold in the virtual reality market before the technology has had a chance to prove itself to the general public, a far cry from the usual "sit back, watch, then dominate" playbook we've seen with MP3 players, tablets, smart watches, and more. Truth be told, I am legitimately excited to hook this thing up to my Mac and see what Apple has cooked up from the comfort of my own home, but I can't see a world in which I'd ever bring something capable of complete virtual immersion out into the wider world unless it defied every aesthetic expectation. To weave a new wearable into my life demands a confluence of design and function, something I'm not embarrassed to be seen wearing that actively makes my life better to boot.

The Apple Watch is the furthest I've seen this rationale pushed out of the "form" end of the "form x function" Venn diagram, as its squircle shape looks admittedly silly sitting on most wrists despite it functionally working to make its wearers healthier of the body and mind, or just better-informed. When I first started wearing an Apple Watch, I did so purely to curtail the seemingly endless notifications streaming into my life. I thought it looked absolutely ridiculous, this big bulky thing that needed to be charged daily, but choosing which apps and people could ping me throughout the day freed me from checking my phone as often as I had been. In my eyes the Apple Watch was a device built to be ignored, and I loved it for that.

It's only in the past few years that my reasons for wearing it have veered into the realm of health. Measuring my daily activity and receiving automated reminders to pause and breathe have provided an off-ramp from a detrimental lifestyle and into something better. For most people, the same kind of praise can be heaped onto the AirPods lineup (or in my case, the Beats Fit Pro), which I consider wearables as much as the Apple Watch. People made fun of the way AirPods look when they were first released, and yet I can't leave the house without seeing at least one person wearing them in public.

Think about it: How often are products released that you refuse to leave home without? What would an Apple headset have to look like to reach such heights? What would it need to do?

There's something to be said about the fact that this thing doesn't necessarily need to become the next AirPods, or even the next iPhone. Not every product is going to be for every person. In the case of an Apple headset, though, the path to success has always seemed so clear to me.

Like the AirPods and the Apple Watch, adoption will take time, but it also needs to come in a form that feels effortless to wear and provides clear, demonstrable value. It needs to be a device that gives context to reality, and makes an already stunning world even more interesting. It may be ridiculed at launch, but if the core idea is sound people will come around. Only years later, after everyone is comfortable with the act of wearing glasses to augment reality, do we make the next logical step to a virtual reality. Building these kinds of habits on a societal scale is not something that can be rushed, but most profit-driven enterprises don't like to play the long game.

Even with market pressure, I can't see most people adopting an expensive escape into virtual reality until we've sufficiently improved upon our own.

1 Wayne Ma for The Information (filtered through a bulleted list of features from MacRumors):

A waist-mounted battery, connected via a magnetic, MagSafe-like power cable to the headset's headband. One battery charge lasts no longer than two hours, but users can swap the battery out for longer sessions.


2 Apple is reportedly working on something similar to this:

The most interesting job listing is one that specifically calls out the development of a 3D mixed-reality world, suggesting that Apple is working on a virtual environment that is similar to the metaverse—though don’t expect Apple to embrace that term.

³ I can't wait for people to link to this piece one day like we do now with people who dunked on the iPhone before it was announced.