The New Apple Headset

The recently announced Apple Vision Pro headset is as much a new platform as a new product. If it succeeds it will be the first in a line of devices for years to come, much like the iPhone. If it fails it will be beacuse it didn’t provide enough value for its cost. Either way it’s something Apple had to try.

The $3500 device is Apple’s fourth computing platform – following computers, phones/tablets, and watches. Each has their own distinct operating system, computing hardware, and display. As interesting as the product is now, we really have no idea of what it will be five years from now. But unlike the other platforms that were affordable right out of the gate and could do worthwhile things, the Vision Pro is different, it’s not fulfilling any immediate need. It’s a platform for the future.

Among their platforms, the Apple watch had the most skeptics. Why would anyone want a $500 watch with a screen that’s off most of the time? Now in its 8th generation, sales exceed Switzerland’s entire fine watch industry. So who really knows?

And that’s the way Tim Cook described the Vision Pro, “In the same way that Mac introduced us to personal computing, and iPhone introduced us to mobile computing, Apple Vision Pro will introduce us to spatial computing. This marks the beginning of a journey that will bring a new dimension to powerful personal technology.”

Apple is trying to convince us that the product can justify the $3500 cost, calling it a computer, a high definition TV, a spatial audio and video system all rolled into one. It can be used for Facetime calls, doing the sorts of things you now do on a phone or computer. It displays both virtual images alone (VR) and combined with real images (AR). Still, that’s all a stretch and not enough now to make it successful by Apple standards, only enough to perhaps sell a few million units by the end of 2024.

A true measure of its success will be what comes afterwards and at what cost. What new functions and uses will it have that we can’t yet envision.

From everything I have learned, the complexity of the product seems to be greater than any other consumer electronic product I’ve ever encountered. It’s full of hundreds of new inventions, including its multi-use wraparound display, its complex optical system, dozen of cameras and sensors, and software to interpret hand gestures, even in the dark. 5000 patents have already been filed.

There’s no other company with the ability to pull this off. No company is in a position to invent all of this themselves or hire the experts they need. No company understands the the human-machine interface like Apple. Fluidity of use and intuitiveness are just as important as the hardware. There’s no company that is willing to risk billions of dollars for something so uncertain.

Apple’s approach, having worked there and observed since, has always been to do things differently, take risks and be willing to fail. More times than not they finally do get things right, alllowing them to reap the benefits of selling well-designed products at unusually high margins. Other times they fail big, such as the Newton, a product I know all too well. That could happen here.

Apple deserves a lot of credit. There are still so many uncertainties and no guarantees. Will it do enough useful things that people are willing to pay for? Can they get the volume high enough to drive down the cost of the components like the displays? Can they solve the comfort and nausea issues associated with other products in this category? And can Apple afford to pour billions each year to get the product and platform to where it needs to be?

Meta (Facebook) has already developed VR headsets and has sold a few million units of products that are $500-$1500. Their products have been focused on a different market – gaming and the metaverse and all VR, not mixed AR and VR. Their products been somewhat clunky and difficult to wear and are much less advanced than the Apple product. The Vision Pro is a much more ambitious effort, aiming at changing how we do all of the things we now do on our phone and computers and adding augmented reality to bring in the environment, rather isolating us from it.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is something Apple had to do as long as there’s a chance that it could become a new platform. For those interested in technology we all now have a front seat to watch the future unfold.

Note: Apple demoed the product to a number of reporters. This description from John Gruber is probably the best I’ve come across.

by Phil Baker