Apple needs to prove why its mixed reality headset matters

It’s shaping up to be a pivotal WWDC for Apple.

Stephen Lam / reuters

Will Apple's rumored mixed reality headset set the company up for failure, or for a future where smart glasses are everywhere? That's the big question running through my mind as we prepare for its annual Worldwide Developers Conference next week. Despite Apple's track record with disrupting nascent technology — most notably, with the iPod and iPhone — there's plenty of reason for skepticism when it comes to mixed reality. Existing mixed reality headsets like the HoloLens 2 and Magic Leap 2 are targeted mainly at corporate customers that can more easily stomach the high prices. VR headsets have arguably plateaued when it comes to the depth of their experiences and their potential market. Just look at the PlayStation VR2, which mostly recycles existing VR games.

And then there's the major problem, the one Apple needs to solve more than anything else: Why would mainstream consumers — not the geeky early adopters or impassioned gamers — want to wear something on their head for extended periods? A mixed reality headset wouldn't be like the iPod or iPhone, which expanded the possibilities of existing products but could easily slip into your pocket. It's not just like the AirPods or the Apple Watch, accessories meant to compliment Apple's existing hardware. A headset, by its very definition, would have to be an all-consuming product, a persistent reminder that you're seeing the world through Apple's eyes.

At its WWDC keynote on Monday, Apple will need to make the case for its mixed reality headset as deftly as Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone and iPod. But this time, it likely won't have a completed product meant for mainstream users. (Admittedly, the iPhone took a few years to transform into something more compelling with the addition of 3G and the App Store.) Instead, we’ll probably see an appeal to developers to help build its mixed reality ecosystem, and for consumers to have faith that it'll eventually be more affordable and truly useful.

Reporting from Bloomberg's Mark Gurman points to Apple's mixed reality headset — potentially called the Reality One or Reality Pro — being a $3,000 device with a focus on gaming, exercise and productivity. It’s said to rely on finger gestures to navigate a floating interface, and there will be a virtual keyboard along with support for physical keyboards. Additionally, Gurman notes that there will be a Digital Crown, similar to the Apple Watch, that can transition the headset from fully immersive VR into mixed reality, which will combine the digital interface with the real world using onboard cameras.

Magic Leap founder (and This Week in XR podcast co-host) Rony Abovitz sees Apple's potential headset as a major boost for the mixed reality industry. "If Apple actually reveals an XR system next week, that act alone will help to validate the belief shared by many XR pioneers that XR is the next important computing platform," he told Engadget over email. "It will take time and a number of generations to perfect, but we should see the market move more quickly after this milestone."

Magic Leap 2 headset and compute module
The Magic Leap 2 mixed reality headset (Devindra Hardawar/Engadget)

But not everyone is convinced that "mixed reality" (MR) is the way forward. Edward Saatchi, the founder of the VR studio Fable and the original founder of Oculus's Story Studio, tells me he still he's "unconvinced" about the concept of MR: "As a VR and AR creator, there are significant differences between making AR content and making VR content and it’s hard to see how an MR headset which can’t decide between AR and VR will be hugely successful."

"AR and VR present significantly different design challenges and you can’t port an AR app over to a VR app," Saatchi added. He likens it to smartphone gamepad accessories, like the Backbone and Razer Kiyo, that aim to let you play either complex console games or casual phone games. Putting those together just "doesn't quite feel right" to him.

As cloudy as Apple's intentions may seem right now, the mixed reality industry is primed for the sort of disruption the company is known for. After all, Apple didn't make the first MP3 device, or the first smartphone. But it was the first company to create a simple music store supported by the music industry, and the iPhone represented a dramatic leap forward over what the BlackBerry and other smartphone platforms offered in 2007.

"The biggest piece that Apple brings to the table with this [headset] is the Apple installed base, and the ability to leverage all of the other Apple tech with a wealth of already installed hardware," Jack Gold, President and Principal Analyst at J. Gold Associates told Engadget. "Meta doesn’t have that same ability since it’s really only a browser/software play. Apple could easily couple any headset with links (and OS updates) to iPhones and Macs and have a built-in market of millions. So Apple has a head start against anyone in the market with an installed base of users that could be easily upgraded."

Gold notes it also makes sense that Apple is focusing on developers first: "Given the price and the relatively low volumes expected, it’s much better to get [headsets] to creators than consumers, and save the consumers for follow on products with better features (which are also being debugged by the developers), and a lower price."

Even if Apple manages to build one of the most sophisticated mixed reality headsets on the market, it's still unclear what the mainstream pitch for such a device would be. For it to be truly compelling, I'd imagine the company has to go a step further from what we've seen with the Meta Quest (and the upcoming Meta Quest 3). It'll need to go beyond games to deliver experiences you can't get anywhere else.

One possibility came to mind a few weeks ago when Sightful unveiled its augmented reality laptop, Spacetop. It's basically a small computing box which, together with customized Nreal smart glasses, lets you see a 100" AR display. While I didn't get to test it in person, it's easy to imagine something from Apple offering similar functionality when connected to a Mac, iPhone or iPad.

Just imagine toting a MacBook Air to a coffee shop, slipping on a pair of mixed reality glasses, and having a 100-inch virtual window expanding out of the laptop's screen. It'd be a boon for multitaskers, as well as people who need to work on confidential material in public. (No more people peeking over your shoulder on planes!) It’ll likely be years before this is technically feasible, but that may also align with when Apple can make a more affordable headset.

Apple's vision reportedly extends beyond mixed reality to lightweight AR glasses, but it's still unclear how feasible those will be in the future. "Pure AR glasses seem like a totally logical next step, but it was 10 years ago that we all said it would take 10 years to get there, and they still don’t seem 10 years away to me," Saatchi said.

But why stop at glasses? Apple's mixed reality ecosystem could easily translate to more advanced technology that doesn’ require you to wear anything. "I think the biggest issue is still having to wear this 'thing' over your head that takes up space and makes it so I can’t really see that well (imagine trying to walk down the street with one of these things on)," Gold said. "I think in five to ten years, what we’ll see is XR that does not require this massive thing on my head to work. That’s when it gets more meaningful, using heads up displays, even 3D displays on phones, etc."

To paraphrase Dr. Emmet Brown in Back to the Future, where we're going, we won't need screens.