Is Apple’s weird headset the future?

Paige Vickers / Vox

Apple’s new goggles aren’t for normals. Not yet, anyway. So why does Apple want to show them off?

Every big, new Apple Product Launch follows a template, one the company pioneered and perfected with the iPhone and then the iPad.

First, long-running rumors and speculation about a mystery device — a version of existing products made by competitors but presumably much better because Apple is making it — percolate among the Apple-obsessed tech set. Then a somewhat clearer picture emerges, courtesy of reporting by mainstream media outlets. The hype crests as Apple unveils The Product at A Big Deal launch event, and then customers flock to buy The Product by the millions.

And that’s kind of what’s happening with the new “mixed-reality” headset the tech world expects Apple to unveil at its developer conference on June 5, in what would arguably be its most ambitious launch since the iPad in 2010. There has been reporting for years about Apple’s efforts to make the devices, and now outlets like the New York Times and Bloomberg have given us a pretty good idea of what to expect.

But this one feels different. The coming headset reveal seems deflated and muddled, without anything like the anticipation that accompanied earlier products. There are also real questions about whether anyone will want to buy what Apple is reportedly selling: an ungainly piece of equipment that will cost around $3,000, make the wearer look extremely uncool, and with a utility that is completely theoretical.

It’s a weird place for Apple to be: It has put billions of dollars into this tech (its competitors are doing the same) in the hope that this will be a platform on the level of the next smartphone and that Apple’s headset will be the equivalent of the iPhone. But even headset boosters don’t think the device Apple will likely show off in June will be anything like the iPhone former CEO Steve Jobs unveiled in 2007.

In the best-case scenario, it’s an early version of tech that hints at the promise to come, when we get a better, cheaper, lighter version … someday down the road.

So on the one hand, Apple is set to unveil a device that could say a lot about its future and the future of consumer tech. But it’s also a bit of a daydream, which will make it very hard to determine whether it’s a hit or a dud. And in the meantime, Apple will very much remain the company that sells iPhones, which is a very good business to be in.

Okay. So what, exactly, should we expect from Apple’s headset? And, more importantly, what does Apple expect us to do once the company announces it?

What is Apple’s new headset actually going to do?

In private meetings this spring, Apple has been showing off the headset. The device looks familiar, since it resembles and functions the way earlier headsets created by rivals like Meta and Microsoft do. It’s also novel because it will do things other headsets don’t, for better and worse.

While Apple CEO Tim Cook has previously hinted about creating a computerized version of glasses — lightweight and unobtrusive things that look like real-world objects many people already wear — the new Apple headset is not it. It’s a relatively bulky thing that straps onto your face and requires so much power that users will have to wear a battery pack on their waist or in their pocket.

The headset is supposed to have two different functions. One is a virtual reality mode, where users see a complete digital landscape — similar to the VR Oculus devices Meta has been making for years. There other is a so-called mixed reality mode — although there’s speculation Apple may use the term “extended reality” when it talks about this — where users can see the real world through the headset, but also see and even interact with digital objects projected onto the real world. That’s an idea that headset startup Magic Leap promised, when it showed off a video of a whale rising out of a school gym nearly a decade ago, but never really delivered.

Magic Leap
An image from marketing material headset-maker Magic Leap used to tease its technology.

Apple is likely to add two tweaks it thinks will distinguish its headsets from the pack.

The first is a “copresence” feature, which I’ve heard described in a couple different ways. In one, someone wearing a headset can share video of the thing they’re looking at with another person wearing a headset, and they can both experience the same thing at the same time. Say, you’re walking on the beach, and you want someone who’s across the country to virtually join you while you walk. The other version is closer to something we’ve seen before: You put on a headset and talk to a computer-generated avatar of another person appearing in your field of view.

And perhaps most confusingly, Apple is supposedly going to place exterior screens on the front of headsets, so people who aren’t wearing the headset can see a video display of the eyes of the person wearing the headset. Does that sound like a straight-up nightmare to you? Me too. But people who’ve heard Apple’s pitch say the company thinks it will make the device more social and less dystopian than the zombie-with-computer-on-face image that Mark Zuckerberg proudly showed off in 2016 as part of a marketing push for his Oculus headsets.

Mark Zuckerberg at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, 2016.

What will you actually do with these things once they’re on your face? Good question. Mark Gurman’s reporting for Bloomberg has suggested that Apple intends to port lots of its existing iOS apps to the new device — but the likes of a calculator app certainly won’t convince anyone to use it, let alone buy it. Last year, the New York Times reported that Jon Favreau, the director behind Elf and Iron Man, as well as the creator of the Star Wars series The Mandalorian on Disney+, was going to make content for the device. I’ve also heard, but haven’t confirmed, that Disney itself will be making stuff for the headset; a Disney rep declined to comment.

All of which suggests that Apple is being quite literal about announcing the new device at its developers conference: It’s hoping that once it shows this thing off to the world, other people will think up fun or at least useful things to do with it, and build up apps to make that happen. That will make the headsets more popular, which will then encourage more developers to build cool apps, which will make them more popular. Repeat.

But … why?

This is where things get very strained if you’re trying to imagine Apple creating another dent-in-the-universe product like the iPhone — or even just a thing that many people buy, like the iPad, and later on the Apple Watch (more than 100 million sold) and AirPods (hundreds of millions sold).

That’s because, despite the collective efforts of Google, Meta, Microsoft, and other tech companies, no one has been able to convince very large numbers of people that virtual reality headsets or augmented headsets or any kind of headsets are things they want to use. That’s different, by the way, from selling headsets; they have been able to do that over the years. Tech research shop CCS insights predicts that consumers will buy 11 million headsets in 2023 alone — a tally it describes as a “slow year.”

But they have never really taken off beyond a gaming novelty or an industrial tool some workers are obliged to use. You can see the disappointment in the behavior of the companies that launched them. Google, which kicked off Big Tech’s augmented and virtual reality phase with its Glass device in 2012, eventually conceded that they were too weird for normals to wear and tried turning them into devices for industrial use; it is formally pulling the plug on the gadgets this fall. Microsoft launched its HoloLens AR headset in 2016 but never broke through; the company has recently been reduced to issuing blog posts insisting that it still cares about the device.

Meta, meanwhile, has poured billions into goggles of all kinds and insists it will do so for years to come. But earlier this year, a Meta executive conceded that consumers don’t love the devices Meta is selling them: “We need to be better at growth and retention and resurrection,” Mark Rabkin, the company’s vice president for VR, said in February.

So how is Tim Cook going to convince consumers that this time is different? It’s going to be tough. For starters, while Cook has been a highly successful CEO — under his tenure, Apple’s stock has soared, and the company is once again approaching $3 trillion in total value — he is not a charismatic salesman in the Steve Jobs mode.

And even Steve Jobs would struggle to sell the benefits of AR or VR goggles. That’s because, by their very nature, you can only see what they do when you wear them yourself. And if you stand on a stage telling people how great they are, you’ll just look like someone onstage with a computer strapped to your face.

“I call it the ‘TV on the radio’ problem,” says Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz: It’s hard to describe a “television” to an audience that has never seen one and is listening to you talk about it on the radio. Abovitz thinks Apple will solve this by sending devices out for hands-on demonstrations at its hundreds of retail stores.

Meanwhile, Cook, who initially dismissed the idea of goggles in favor of glasses, now says he was wrong, and that, theoretically, goggles could be awesome. Here’s his test run for his pitch, which he floated to GQ magazine earlier this year:

It could empower people to achieve things they couldn’t achieve before. We might be able to collaborate on something much easier if we were sitting here brainstorming about it and all of a sudden we could pull up something digitally and both see it and begin to collaborate on it and create with it. And so it’s the idea that there is this environment that may be even better than just the real world—to overlay the virtual world on top of it might be an even better world. And so this is exciting. If it could accelerate creativity, if it could just help you do things that you do all day long and you didn’t really think about doing them in a different way.

I mean, maybe? I’m in favor of collaboration. But I’ve spent three years being forced to collaborate with people using technology, and my strong preference right now is to collaborate with them in person whenever I can. And when I do have to call or Zoom or Google Meet with people, I already have tech that lets me do it. Like a phone, or a computer.

Asking me to wear a device to do it better — and asking someone else to do the same — means that it has to be way, way better than what we have now.

And maybe Apple’s headsets will be way, way better at this. (At various points, people who worked at Meta have tried to tell me that the company’s devices are actually pretty good for collaboration, just like their boss says they are. But their hearts have never seemed into it.)

Reports suggest that even Apple executives aren’t fully on board for this launch — and that’s not anything we’ve ever heard before as Apple prepares one of these things. (To be fair, that could also indicate that Apple in 2023 is a different company than it used to be, where very little of the company’s inner workings ever showed up in print — to say nothing of dissent.)

The most logical argument is that Apple doesn’t really think it will sell tens of millions of these things, in this form, at $3,000 a pop. Rather, it thinks the initial buyers will be developers, hobbyists, and Apple super fans. And Apple believes it will learn a lot about the device’s potential once they’re out in the wild, with real people testing them and providing feedback. And that years down the road, when costs come down and the tech improves and there are multiple killer apps for this stuff, Apple’s headset will take off.

Industry experts say Apple may have no choice but to put out AR/VR tech that’s not completely refined because it needs to see how the things perform in the real world and to see how developers and consumers react to them.

“There’s nothing to replace being in the field, being in the dirt, just grinding it out,” says Abovitz. “I think they’ve been on the sidelines way too long. At some point, you have to go into the wild.”

That is decidedly not how Apple has done things in the past: Normally, Apple announces a product, then tells you you can buy it very soon, and sales go up and to the right.

Apple boosters will note that the original iPhone wasn’t a gangbusters hit from the get-go: It took a price cut and the eventual introduction of the App Store to really get things going. The Apple Watch also took a while to find its footing: Apple initially positioned it as a fashion item, but most people ended up using it as a high-tech pedometer, so now Apple markets it as a “fitness” product.

But the phone, the watch, the earbuds — and going very far back, the iPod — these were all things that had real-world analogs and real-world use cases, and didn’t require people to make word salad to pitch them. Maybe the goggles simply require a different timetable before they’re really, truly ready, and Apple is starting now because it has to eventually. But I’d feel more confident about the prospects for this tech at show time if I thought the show was ready.

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