Apple's long-awaited mixed reality headset is the company's ambition to develop a 3D version of the iPhone operating system that would stand out from competitors' devices. The roughly $3,000 gadget, likely called Reality Pro, will demonstrate a novel approach to virtual meetings and immersive video, which is expected to disrupt the Meta-dominated VR industry.
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Apple enters an uncertain market with a premium product. The company's technology development team of more than 1,000 people has spent more than seven years on the project, and the company expects it to become a new revenue source, especially given that sales growth will not go up this year.
Nevertheless, virtual reality has proved to be a challenge for the greatest technologists. Although some say the industry will exceed $100 billion by the end of the decade, headsets remain considered as niche goods, and Meta has lost billions in its efforts.
Apple's goal is to introduce something new. According to users familiar with the device, eye and hand tracking capabilities will be the main selling point. It will also be able to display immersive video content, provide an external display for a connected Mac, and emulate many of the features of an iPhone and iPad.
The headset will include several external cameras that can monitor the user's hands and sensors in the headset's body in order to select a task. This is different from other headsets that usually use a handheld controller.
Apple's new Meta headset will integrate both virtual and augmented reality. With virtual reality, users can see the image and content while wearing glasses. Moreover, augmented reality superimposes digital content on the real world.
Apple will offer special lenses for users who have access to glasses directly in the case.
Apple expects the device to be distinguished from others thanks to the Digital Crown, an Apple Watch-like wheel that allows you to toggle between VR and AR.
FaceTime is a virtual reality application that will realistically display the user's face and entire body. These avatars will allow two people – each with an Apple headset – to communicate immersively. The technology differs from the Meta headset, which creates a more cartoon-like user avatar.
Because of the enormous processing power required for this feature, the headset will only support realistic avatars during one-on-one video chats. This will still allow FaceTime sessions with multiple people, but additional users will appear as an icon or Memoji, Apple's customized emoji.
When making an iPhone FaceTime call, Animoji. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Apple intends to launch the device this spring, although the schedule will continue to change. This will allow the company to discuss the product at the annual Software Developers Conference in June, and then release it later this year, according to Bloomberg sources.
Apple is already working on a cheaper version – expected in late 2024 or early 2025 – that will cost closer to $1,500.
Apple expects to sell about a million units of its new headset in its first year, compared to the iPhone, the company's largest earner in Cupertino. However, the company does not intend to immediately make a profit on the initial version, even at a high price.
Apple has discussed with a dozen media partners how to make VR content compatible with the new device. In 2020, Apple acquired NextVR, a streaming company that specializes on sports content in VR.
Apple intends to include a dedicated video viewing feature that will make users feel as if they're watching a film on a giant screen in a different environment, such as the desert or outer space. However, the headset's speakers may not be able to handle it, so users will need to wear AirPods to enjoy the full surround sound experience.
The Mac will also be able to serve as an external monitor, allowing users to see the computer screen in virtual reality, but still control it using a trackpad or mouse and a physical keyboard.
The headset's operating system, called xrOS, will provide many of the same features as the iPhone and iPad in a 3D environment, as well as apps for company services such as the App Store for installing third-party software, Apple TV+, and podcasts.
Apple users should recognize the headset's main interface, which will be similar to that of the iPhone and iPad, and will display a main screen with a grid of icons that may be changed. Tools such as weather, calendar appointments, email, and stock market numbers will also be available.
When users need to type in the air with their hands, they can use the Siri voice assistant or the iPhone, Mac, or iPad keyboard. However, unlike the Apple Watch, you don't need an iPhone to operate. The company is working on a technology that will enable users to type in the air with their hands at the initial launch.
Third-party games are expected to become a popular offering from third-party developers. In 2017, ARKit and other tools were released to help prepare the iPhone's augmented reality experience. This provided a framework for programmers to create programs, games, and services.
According to trademark applications filed by Apple, the device will include a modified M2 chip used in recent Macs, as well as a dedicated processor for graphics and mixed reality.
However, in addition to the necessity of having sufficiently powerful processors, Apple created an additional problem: the device overheated when placed on the user's face. Another feature is the addition of a cooling fan, like on high-end Macs.
Nic Coury/Bloomberg Photographer: Nic Coury/Bloomberg The headset can last about two hours on a single battery, which is about the same as two iPhone 14 Pro Max stacked on top of each other.
Meta's batteries are placed on the back of the headset in a way that helps balance the device on the person's head. Some testers found the product to be bulky.
Other issues may arise due to the relatively short battery life — about 20 hours less than Apple's latest MacBook Pro — that users will have to purchase many batteries and replace them regularly.
Apple acknowledged these challenges within the company and set reasonable expectations for the product. According to the company, the device is beneficial in that it allows customers to test the product before purchasing another device, such as an iPad or AirPods.
The initial headset will be made of aluminum and glass, and will be similar to Apple's $550 AirPods Max. The device will have a curved screen on the front, speakers on the sides, and a special headband that helps keep it from being tucked under the head. This will set the product apart from competitors who usually tie it together to the user with multiple straps.
Apple likes to keep its headsets unique: the iPod had a wheel, the iPhone and iPad had a multi-touch interface, and the Apple Watch had the Digital Crown. Now, the company is hoping that its next product will take the lead with its sci-fi interface.