I don’t know about you, but if there’s ever been hype around a rumored Apple product that I have felt most disconnected from, it’s the obsessively chronicled mixed reality headset that we’re supposedly going to get our first look at during the WWDC keynote in a couple of weeks.
And look, I say that as someone who deeply appreciates not just Apple products but what the company stands for: that design isn’t just how a thing looks, it’s how it works. Beyond category-defining products like the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, the Apple Watch, and most recently, AirPods, Apple is also driven by creating products for creators. As Steve Jobs said, Apple’s DNA is based in the belief that “technology alone is not enough.” That it’s only when you marry technology with liberal arts, with the humanities, that you produce a result “that makes our hearts sing.”
I think what’s off with the hype around the rumored mixed reality headset―a device that will seek to both immerse the wearer in virtual worlds and augment the real world around them with information or entertainment―is that there is yet to be any evidence of something that would make your heart sing.
A mind-goggling problem
Now, you could definitely say the same thing about other Apple products before they officially launched. It was hard to know how to feel about the Apple Watch before using one, for instance, while other products like the iPod, iPhone, and AirPods established a seemingly immediate connection with the general populace. But with the Apple Watch, you could at least imagine it. The most personal computer yet? A device that would not only inform and connect the wearer but also serve as a fashion piece or statement? Those possibilities were clear from the start.
But in my opinion, things are extremely unclear when it comes to the rumored headset. (If you need a rumor mill refresher about all the expectations behind the headset, MacRumors has an awesome roundup right here.) As things stand, this is a solution in search of a problem.
For starters, the majority of Apple’s hardware focus for some time now has been on tools that can be used anywhere and at anytime. Another Apple tech philosophy is that good technology fades into the background as if it’s not even there.
This mixed reality―or XR as Apple is calling it―headset though? It literally covers your eyes and, based on the rumored renders, is the size and shape of ski goggles.
The next AirPods?
People are going to have to overcome a lot of social anxiety to use these things out in the open. To date, the most successful VR headset by far is the Meta Quest. Do you see them out in the wild? Occasionally, and that feels like overstating it a bit. Are they as ubiquitous as AirPods? Not even close.
To be clear, Apple’s expectations for the sales the first generation of this headset will generate seem appropriate. Based on what analyst Ming Chi Kuo says, Apple is forecasting sales of 7 to 10 million units in the first year. For comparison, the company sold 225 million iPhones in 2022. So this headset would represent a small fraction of Apple’s biggest business.
But the ubiquity of AirPods―technology that actually augments the world around you in a non-intrusive way―is exactly what those who believe in the promise of mixed reality headsets should be aiming for. Anything else undermines the ultimate utility of the technology. That’s evident in the adoption of current generation headsets like the Meta Quest and Quest Pro. As an owner of a Quest 2, it’s a fun device with enjoyable gaming experiences. But the bulk of the headset and the need to have a completely wide open space to use it in make it somewhat of a nuisance to use. I don’t just decide to throw it on. It feels like a whole process I have to be willing to get into instead of just picking up a controller or my Nintendo Switch.
The Quest Pro was released for “professional” applications, but no one is taking it seriously either because no one wants to have to strap a headset to their face and then have a meeting…with cartoon characters.
But if history is any indication, this tepid state of mixed reality should be a huge opportunity for Apple to do what Apple has always done: elevate a technology to new heights in such a way that it just clicks with the masses.
And if the rumored hardware turns out to be true, Apple is putting itself in a good position to do just that. The headset is said to have dual 4K micro-OLED displays, dual M2-based processors, and 12 cameras for hand tracking. Those dual 4K displays are said provide 3,000 pixels per inch for ultra-sharp viewing that would be a night-and-day upgrade over the Quest 2.
But again, just look at this render. If the headset ends up looking like this, it will definitely be the coolest-looking one yet. I really dig the use of materials that call the AirPods Max and Apple Watch to mind as it showcases that Apple is putting everything its learned from wearable tech into this design.
But. It’s still so big. And it still sits on your face. And if the rumors are true, it will cost $3,000.
Even with all the might of dual M2 processors and 3,000 pixels-per-inch displays blasting incredible visuals directly into your eyeballs, the technology still seems… undercooked.
The ultimate aim of this technology feels like it should be an audio-visual, mixed reality AI like J.A.R.V.I.S. in the Iron Man movies. Specifically, the portable Jarvis that Tony Stark can access through a pair of glasses. That is undeniably cool and something that everyone wants.
But these giant headsets are not that. Could they enable some incredible and intuitive work and play experiences? Yes. But how can you call something truly immersive if it makes you sweat around the eyes while hugging your head?
Of course there’s a chance that the rumors only have things half right. Maybe this headset is lighter and less bulky than the renders. Maybe the xrOS and apps that Apple has put together are truly groundbreaking and will change the way people work and communicate. I hope they are! And maybe Apple actually sells it somewhere closer to $1,000 than $3,000. Those things would certainly help.
But even without those things, we’ve seen Apple release a first generation product with a lot of promise and a high price tag before to the praise of a small group of early adopters and then slowly build a massive business around the product through yearly iteration. That could very well happen again with this headset!
I could continue to go round and round with the ifs and buts here, and I think that’s why there’s more of an uncertain feeling with this headset than Apple products that have come before it. High price tags haven’t stopped Apple in the past and neither has the lackluster current state of a market the company has chosen to enter. But in the case of mixed reality, there’s a more philosophical uncertainty: will this technology exemplify Apple’s DNA? Will it truly marry technology and the humanities.
Will it make our hearts sing? I’m just not sure.
What do you think about the rumored Apple mixed reality headset? Are you excited about it? If so, what do you think the promise of this technology is? What do you anticipate Apple has up its sleeve? Let us know in the comments below.