Apple’s Outward Focus to VR

Knee-Jerk Reactions and Thoughts Regarding The Information’s Latest Report on Apple’s Upcoming Headset by John Gruber for Daring Fireball

Apple Will Talk Up Its Mixed-Reality Headset in 2023 But Not Much Else by Mark Gurman for Bloomberg

2023 is going to be a big "VR from companies that Max likes." PS VR2 is a whopping six weeks away and Apple is heavily rumored to make their VR/AR headset debut this year.

Last week, The Information had a report1 on the new product line from Apple and Gruber gave his aptly named knee-jerk response to said report. Since then, Mark Gurman also wrote some news about the impending headset. Procrastination wins again?

I recommend you read both articles for yourself, but I wanted to comb through this smattering of news and comment on it myself. Let’s hop to it.

[Gurman] Up until fairly recently, Apple had aimed to introduce the headset in January 2023 and ship it later this year. Now the company is aiming to unveil it this spring ahead of the annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June, I’m told.

Sounds like March-April is the event timing, looking back at previous spring events. I agree the headset has to be unveiled before WWDC this year. Announcing new hardware and a new OS at WWDC would rob the event of all other conversation.

[Gurman] Apple has already shared the device with a small number of high-profile software developers for testing, letting them get started on third-party apps. The device’s operating system, dubbed “Borealis” inside the company, will be publicly named xrOS

I like Borealis. I don’t care for xrOS. It feels odd in the lineup—macOS, iOS, iPadOS, tvOS, watchOS, and xrOS. I had to look up what "XR" represented in the VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality, and MR (mixed reality) space. Apparently, it just encompasses all three of those.

[Gurman] With the current plan, Apple could introduce the device to consumers — likely under the name Reality Pro…

It seems strange to me for Apple to introduce a "Pro" named device before a non-pro version. I don’t think the company has ever done that before (they have!2). Now to pivot to Ma and Gruber.

[Ma] For example, the headset will use small motors to automatically adjust its lenses, ensuring that the wearer has the best possible viewing experience. A physical dial on the headset will allow users to quickly toggle between complete immersion in VR and the ability to see their surroundings.

[Gruber] A “digital crown” -like dial for switching between AR and VR jibes with what I’ve heard, too.

While this sounds elegant, the crown is going to have to be placed in an easy to access spot on the device, possibly even larger than the digital crown on the Apple Watch and AirPods Max. Tapping around looking for a dial with the headset on your face won’t be a good experience, especially if you are trying to transition between AR and VR. I find myself running my fingers along the side of my Quest 2 looking for the headphone jack or the power button.

If the dial allows for a blended, smooth transition, that’ll be neat. If it acts more like a switch, how is that any better than double-tapping the side of the Quest 2 for pass-through mode?3 The Quest 2’s (and PS VR2’s) black-and-white pass through isn’t exciting; it’s functional. With Apple tackling both realities, they need to have color.

[Ma] As of last year, the headset used an external battery pack tethered by cable as opposed to a battery integrated into the headband. The design choice has been controversial among Apple’s engineers given the company’s preference for cable-free designs.

[Gruber] …I’m in no way prejudging Apple’s headset — which I know very little about — but a battery pack tethered via a cable sounds to me like a deal-breaker. Either Ma is wrong, Apple is about to jump the shark, or this device is going to be so utterly compelling that a tethered battery is worth the hassle.

Cables are the most cumbersome element of engaging with VR. The Quest 2’s wireless nature is its most compelling feature. Being able to go in and out by just putting on and taking off the headset is the lowest barrier to entry and Apple should be striving for integrated power.

The trade off for a cable is raw power. PS VR1 required one cable that split into two from the headset into a processor pox that split the HDMI signal and had it’s own dedicated power. Now PS VR2 has one single cable. That is tremendously enticing, since the PlayStation consoles for both those headsets handled the actual game rendering power. Apple attaching a battery back, while would increase single run usage, isn’t bumping up the technical chops of the headset itself.

[Ma] Apple’s headset is also expected to be far more expensive than most of the company’s other devices, as well as other VR headsets: It has discussed pricing it around $3,000 or more depending on its configuration, according to four people with knowledge of the conversations.

[Gruber] It was widely reported in the run-up to the iPad’s debut that it would start at $1,000, but in fact started at just $500. But even if off by a factor of 2, $1,500 would be pricey. If it really does cost $3,000, I don’t think that’s a deal-breaker, but it’d be a sign that the platform is still years away from large-scale adoption.

$3,000 is a hard no for me at launch. $1,500 is a big ask (and my wife would probably say no). If these are the prices in play, Apple’s headsets won’t be adopted on a large scale by general consumers at the start, like Gruber says.

[Ma] The headset has inward-facing displays for each eye and a large outward-facing display on the front of the device. The external display can show the facial expressions of the person wearing the headset, along with other types of imagery, to people around the user, which is meant to reduce the isolation users might otherwise feel when wearing the device.

It’s an interesting idea to try and combat the odd feeling folks around the headset user may feel, but I fail to see how this helps the wearer. Eye-tracking is becoming a standard feature in VR headsets.4 So far, the feature has been targeted at user input and experience (navigating UI, foveated rendering, accurate facial representation in-game, etc.). I’m not sure if focusing efforts on the outward-facing experience should be a primary focus. Comfort for the non-user would come with more and more people using VR/AR devices.

[Ma] Third-party bluetooth wireless headphones won’t work well with the headset as this results in too much lag between what users see on the screen and what they hear. There also isn’t an audio jack on the device to plug in wired headphones.

[Gruber] Wait, is Ma writing for The Verge or for The Information?

I appreciate the joke, but a headphone jack is tremendously helpful for immersion. Audio lag can pull you right out of VR. Why be averted to a wired headset when there is reportedly a battery pack attached via cable? Since third-party wireless headphones are reportedly too janky, this only leaves AirPods. The noise-cancelling on the Pro and up line of AirPods will be great. This does add another $129-549 on top of the $3,000, which is chump change at that entry price.

To avoid just pasting a wall of text, Ma reports Apple sees videoconferencing and 3D models as the killer apps of the device, not a focus on games. Games are the focus of VR right now. I’ve heard videoconferences are dope in VR, far superior to a webcam and Zoom, but no one is going to pay $3,000 for a Teams meeting. You can barely get me to cooperate with a 2D Teams meeting, when Teams decides to even work.

This gives me major Apple Watch Series 0 vibes. It’ll unlock you hotel room. It’ll control your house. You can make calls. Apple didn’t have the laser focus on Fitness that the Watch has now. Sounds like a lot of throwing pasta at the wall and seeing if it sticks.

[Gruber] …the fundamental question remains: What’s the point? Think back to Steve Jobs’s presentation announcing the original iPad — the nut of the whole keynote was Jobs explaining where the iPad might fit between an iPhone and MacBook. If it didn’t serve some tasks not just a little but a lot better than either an iPhone or Mac, there was no point to the iPad. The same is true for this headset. And if it costs $3,000 and/or requires a tethered battery strapped around your waist, the “this better be an awesome experience” bar is raised even higher.

[Gurman] While Apple still has many kinks to work out with the device —involving hardware, software and services, as well as how it will be marketed and sold — the company is banking on the product as its hot new introduction for this year.

It feels like the headset is coming in hot, which is a strange feeling for a device that has reportedly been in the works for seven years. The iPhone came in hot, but the vision was clear. The iPad, like Gruber mentioned, was presented as a device that fit between and complimented the iPhone and Mac. The Watch started as an extension of the iPhone and evolved into a health-focused piece of hardware.

Where does the "Reality Pro" fit in the lineup of existing Apple products? What will compel a person choose to interact with Messages or Mail or FaceTime on the headset instead of any of the other major products? Why a reportedly strong focus on the outward experience instead of the user experience? It sounds like Apple isn’t quite sure either. I hope they figure it out here in the next few months.

1. The Information is a pay-walled site. If you do not have a subscription, MacRumors had a summary, which Gruber also linked too.

2. Turns out they did introduce the MacBook Pro line before the MacBook. The Pro was introduced in February 2006 and the regular MacBook was released in May 2006.

3. In defense of a physical dial, I have never gotten the double tap to work on my Quest 2.

4. I am eager to experience it first hand with PS VR2 next month.