Apple’s Reality Pro headset could make augmented reality cool

As Apple prepares its long rumored leap into augmented reality on Monday, doubts have overshadowed every step. There are reports of frequent changes in direction and skepticism within Apple’s ranks. The device has reportedly been difficult to manufacture and required numerous compromises. The process took years longer than Apple expected. And at a rumored $3,000, even Apple reportedly expects slow sales in the short term.

But among AR professionals, the mood is jubilant. “This is the single biggest thing that could happen to this industry,” said Jay Wright, CEO of the VR/AR collaboration platform Campfire 3D. “Whether you make hardware or software. We are excited about it.”

No industry needs Apple’s “it just works” ethos like AR

Build on positive reviews from industry pioneers like Palmer Luckey, AR hardware and software makers say Apple can finally validate a decade of efforts to mainstream the technology. Part of this optimism is being driven by Apple’s rumored specs, including a lightweight design and a supposedly extraordinarily high-end display.

Proponents point to Apple’s history of entering a market after other companies have laid the groundwork, such as with phones. But much of it can be summed up in two statements: Apple can sell hardware, and Apple is cool.

No tech category has Apple’s “it just workspromise more than AR. (This format is sometimes referred to as “mixed reality” or “XR,” to underline how confusing the consumer talk is.) Pure consumer VR — though a small market — has fused around relatively popular genres such as fitness apps, a few common storefronts like SteamVR and the Quest store, and a common controller scheme.

AR has no such guarantees.

The hardware is hugely varied, ranging from bulky headsets with advanced tracking to smart glasses that do little more than display alerts. The software is often aimed at hyper-specialized business use. There is no firm consensus on control schedules.

Based on numerous leaks, Apple’s headset uses so-called “passthrough” AR. It features high-resolution screens and can run full VR applications, but it’s also littered with cameras that can relay a high-resolution image of the real world – rumor has it you press a “reality button” to switch between AR and VR. That means it can provide the illusion of a real world with virtual objects on it.

Passthrough avoids some of the problems AR glasses like Magic Leap and Microsoft HoloLens face, such as translucent virtual objects and a limited field of view. Meta, the largest consumer headset player, chose the style for its Quest Pro design last year. But the Quest Pro had a grainy, washed-out video feed and offered limited practical uses for its AR mode. For example, a virtual office required a complicated synchronization process with your Mac or PC. And Meta has generally focused on the lower end of the VR and AR market – it also includes passthrough as a selling point for the upcoming $499 Quest 3.

In contrast, several people speculated that Apple’s headset could resemble the Tesla Roadster: a flashy, expensive sports car that sold people on the concept of electric vehicles. “Apple is making devices in a way that is really useful and comfortable for people and makes people care,” said Jacob Loewenstein, SVP of the 3D social platform Spatial, which has appeared on numerous AR and VR devices.

“There’s going to be so much trash there, and there’s going to be cool stuff too.”

The exact use of Apple’s rumor technology is not yet known. CEO Tim Cook has said that AR stands for “communication” and “connection” and that it will reportedly offer FaceTime capabilities that can display a person’s face and body. Are also said to offer access to iPad apps, games, entertainment via Apple’s TV app and a version of Apple Fitness Plus. “One of the reasons I think Apple is hugely successful in many of their ventures is that they’re not just launching a device, they’re launching an ecosystem,” said Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen, who covers the VR/AR market. “It’s that combination of different applications applied to different use cases for different users – that’s the ‘killer app.'”

Apple reportedly doesn’t expect a large early market for the device – it has revised its expectations down to less than a million units a year, compared to 200 million or more iPhones. Still, despite the rumored cost of the device, some are predicting a gold rush of app designers trying to emulate the success of early iPhone developers. “I was like, wait, why don’t I make a crazy version of an application that everyone likes — like being one of the first to-do apps on the Apple headset?” says Gabe Baker, VP of browser-based VR collaboration platform Frame. “There’s going to be so much trash there, and there’s going to be cool stuff too — it’s going to be a fun time.”

Apple has an ambivalent relationship with web developers, who are a niche but notable subset of the AR/VR industry. Safari is very lagging in supporting WebXR, a common standard for browser-based immersive experiences, on iOS. But the browser is reportedly launching on its headset, putting web-based AR in the spotlight. “We are cautiously optimistic that Apple will actually make Safari a viable application on their upcoming hardware,” said Baker. “Meta has shown that the web browser can actually be a vehicle for high-quality, immersive content, hands-down, and I think Apple wants that on their headset.”

The iPhone’s decade-plus dominance has shown numerous drawbacks to “it just works”. Apple has mastered the walled garden, and many app developers working in it aren’t happy with the results. It has spent years battling some prominent developers like Epic and Match Group in court, and others have testified in Congress that their apps have been locked down and subverted by Apple’s own copycats.

Apple is still penetrating a field that has beaten some of the biggest tech companies

But for AR and VR developers, the alternative to an Apple walled garden can be a desert. Many apps – especially non-gaming ones – have switched to more conventional computing devices as one headset after another has failed to capture a consumer market. A notable exception is Meta, which has defied expectations with its Quest 2 for VR. That has created the opposite problem: a system that some developers and regulators worry Meta could monopolize the nascent industry, and some rival hardware companies have expressed irritation at the Quest’s abysmal, ad-subsidized prices.

“I think the other thing that’s compelling is the arms race it’s starting between Meta and Apple. We’ve never had these two titans compete against each other on a new platform before,” says Loewenstein. And even for hardware makers, Apple’s entry isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the market for AR glasses is so small that any new focus on space is welcome.

Despite the excitement within the industry, Apple is still pushing into a field that has beaten some of the biggest companies in technology. Google and Microsoft have both launched AR headsets with flashy, easy-to-use applications (in Microsoft’s case, an AR edition of Minecraft) only to end up with a much less ambitious enterprise-focused product. This also applies to the richly funded startup Magic Leap.

Moreover, few people seem to think that passthrough AR is an end point for the medium. As Nguyen points out, a passthrough headset carries basic security risks compared to a more goggle-like system: If the video feed stutters or goes dark, it temporarily blinds the user. That makes it risky to use outside of a controlled home or office environment. “I see the Apple device as a replacement for my iMac,” says Nima Shams, VP at DigiLens, a longtime optics manufacturer for glasses-style headsets. “I don’t see the device as a replacement for my iPhone.” Apple has also reportedly been working on a transparent, non-passthrough headset, but that’s not what anyone expects on Monday.

There are pragmatic reasons to believe that Apple is better positioned than these companies. First, the technology has has matured significantly since Google began testing Glass in 2012, Microsoft announced HoloLens in 2015, and Magic Leap unveiled its first product in 2018. Plus, Apple has a track record in consumer hardware that virtually no other company can match. That includes not only carefully crafted industrial design and interfaces like trackpads, but also its own rather powerful chips in recent years. “If we were faced with rumors of a similar headset made by anyone other than Apple, I don’t think it would be such a success,” said IDC research manager Jitesh Ubrani. “Apple has massive scale, massive developer support, massive consumer support — and no one else comes close.”

But the most emotionally compelling argument is simply that Apple can even make strange-looking products, like AirPods, compared to anything from Cotton swabs for semen – socially acceptable. As Loewenstein puts it, “the key has always been very, very simple: is this thing useful? Is this thing comfortable? And is this thing cool? Meta has demonstrated the value of VR for games, but the company’s uncoolness is a running joke, from the famous photo of an MWC audience strapped in headsets to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s much-maligned legless avatar. “I think Apple has the cool factor.”

And if not? Well, if you’ve been in the consumer AR world for that long, you can probably take some disappointment.