Apple’s cautious step into a brave new world

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Will the launch of Apple’s extended reality headset provide the long-awaited breakthrough for what many see as the future of computing? Probably not, but it could provide the gateway for that breakthrough.

On Monday, Apple unveiled the Vision Pro headset at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, with an eye-glazing $US3499 ($5287) price tag, after spending seven years developing a product that mixes virtual and augmented reality to create what it describes as “spacial computing.”

The Apple Vision Pro headset is displayed in a showroom on the Apple campus in Cupertino, California.Credit: AP

Only days earlier, Facebook’s parent company Meta Platforms announced the latest of its virtual reality headsets, the Meta Quest 3, priced at $US499. Meta, which changed its name in 2021 to reflect Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of its “metaverse” future, has spent more than $US100 billion in pursuit of that vision.

So far, it has sold only about 20 million of its headsets, with the consumer response to its offerings less than enthusiastic. As an industry, there are estimates that only about 120 million virtual and augmented reality devices will be sold this year. As a reference point, about 1.2 billion smartphones are sold each year.

Does that lacklustre reaction to Meta’s efforts and massive investment suggest that Apple’s somewhat more limited ambitions are also destined to disappoint? Perhaps, although it is the more cautious nature of Apple’s entry that perhaps offers some prospect of success.

There was a moment, six years ago, when virtual and augmented reality were seen as on the cusp of a breakthrough into mass adoption as the extraordinary (if fleeting) Pokemon Go phenomenon hinted at a transformed future and coincided with Apple’s launch of developers’ tools for its iPhones that would enable them to create augmented reality applications.

That breakthrough didn’t happen, with their take-up largely confined to gaming.

It is unlikely that the high-priced Vision Pro will be the product that provides that breakthrough. But by exposing it to Apple’s 34 million-strong army of app developers, the tech giant appears to be hoping they will produce the “killer app” that turns an interesting concept – the ability to create or overlay a digital world and/or digital data onto the real world – into a major new stream of business.

For those developers – and there is a horde of companies working on virtual and augmented technologies –this week’s launch is a watershed moment. Apple’s remarkable ability to create devices that capture the imagination of consumers means this may be the “make or break” opportunity to take the technologies mainstream.

‘Make or break’ opportunity

For Apple, which has been toying with virtual and augmented technologies for the best part of two decades, the move could be regarded as a bet on a future where its smartphones have been superseded. At worst, it will be a new niche and experimental technology within the Apple ecosystem.

Describing its headset as a “revolutionary” product, Apple demonstrated its features at the launch: It can shift between virtual and augmented realities, can use existing apps, uses eyes, voices and fingers to shift displays and open apps and has a sound and video system that has been described as being akin to a personal cinema theatre.

Disney’s Disney+ video catalogue will be available for streaming on the headset as soon as it is available to consumers next year, with Disney boss Bob Iger also calling the headset “revolutionary.”

Apple is targeting high-end users and first movers with the Vision Pro. Gaming is an obvious application but real estate and construction, retail and other business applications – a virtual reality alternative to Zoom, for instance – as well as remote healthcare, education and even military applications are all conceivable. (Pilots in the US airforce are expected to be flying while wearing augmented reality headsets next year, practising manoeuvres against “enemy” aircraft).

Interest in virtual and augmented reality has waned as Meta’s efforts have spluttered and other technologies have excited more interest. The excitement around generative artificial intelligence as a transformative and disruptive technology, for instance, has been extraordinary.

AI is, of course, vital to the creation of the immersive experiences that Meta, Apple and other mixed reality developers are pursuing.

It is also a potential disruptor of Apple’s devices (and others’) and their current positioning as key gateways to the internet. There are defensive as well as offensive aspects to Apple’s interest in pursuing mixed reality technologies.

It is worth noting that Apple’s ambitions are, at this point, more limited and pragmatic than Meta’s. That was underscored by the absence of any reference to a metaverse, a concept that few, even within Meta, appears to fully grasp.

Meta wants to create a completely immersive virtual experience; an alternate reality in some respects. Apple’s emphasis on augmented rather than virtual reality points to a more modest ambition of taking a measured step from its existing suite of products and applications.

It wants a foothold in the new world, blending digital content with the real world, not the bold plunge into a brave new world that Meta is taking.

Despite downplaying near-term expectations, the launch of the headset – which is a platform as much as it is a product – represents Apple’s first new product category in a decade. By itself that underscores its significance to Apple and, given that it is Apple releasing a mixed reality product rather than some lesser company, the tech sector more broadly.

Will Vision Pro provide the breakthrough moment for virtual and augmented technologies that the original iPhone provided for smartphones?

Probably not. It might, however, be the platform that provides that moment.

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