With the iPod, iPhone and Apple Watch, uncool gadgets got cool. Now the company is taking on mixed-reality goggles.
By guest author Joanna Stern from the Wall Street Journal.
May 17, 2023
The tech company is expected to announce a mixed reality headset that resembles ski goggles June 5, in one of its most unconventional launches yet. The mainstream appeal of mixed reality devices—which combine virtual reality, where you see only what’s in the headset, and augmented reality, where digital objects appear in the real world—is cloudy. The market for such headsets is also smaller than others Apple has entered. But WSJ columnist Joanna Stern says Apple has a proven playbook for entering new product categories—and expanding them in the process.
Nerd helmet (noun): A cranial contraption that transports the wearer to a virtual world or overlays virtual objects in the real world.
Example sentence: This nerd helmet scares household pets and leaves imprints on my face.
The USD 1000 Meta Quest Pro, with its advanced displays and cameras, is better than headsets have ever been. But they all still have technical and physical limitations that make MRI machines seem cozy—hence my new name for them.
All eyes are on Apple AAPL 0.06%increase; green up pointing triangle
to change that. At its annual developer conference on June 5, the company is expected to announce its own headgear. My colleagues recently reported some of the details:
- The headset resembles a pair of ski goggles and comes with an external battery pack.
- It’s “mixed reality,” combining virtual reality, where you see only what’s in the headset, and augmented reality, where digital objects appear in the real world.
- Apple is in search of a “killer app” and has worked on a FaceTime-like live chat experience.
- It is expected to cost USD 3000 and likely won’t ship until the fall, at the earliest.
Some of those details were previously reported by Bloomberg and the Information. Apple declined to comment.
It seems like one of the company’s most unconventional product introductions…ever. The mainstream appeal is cloudy, and the current market for these interactive headsets is smaller than any the company has entered in the past decade.
Yet Apple has a proven playbook for entering new product categories with a more polished version, expanding the whole market in the process. (See my video for a look at how some product categories have ballooned after Apple’s introductions.)
By looking at the iPod and the Apple Watch, is it possible to see how Apple can turn a basement-bound nerd helmet into iGlasses we can wear on Main Street?
Turning complicated to cool
Remember the Rio 600 or the Creative Nomad? Doubt it. The early, clunky digital audio players had limited storage space and battery life. Getting music onto them required an IT degree. The iPod changed that with a smart design and easy-to-use iTunes software for importing CDs. Even if it took a few years (and support for Windows PCs), the revolution feels almost instantaneous in hindsight
Today’s headsets are similar. They can barely go two hours on a charge, the software interfaces can be confusing and they don’t play nicely with other devices. They mostly appeal to gamers and early adopters.
While you could argue that Apple did the same for smartphones, that market was already big. The year before the iPhone’s debut, there were 81.9 million global shipments of BlackBerrys, Palm Treos, assorted Windows Mobile thingamajigs and more, according to market research firm IDC. In 2022, 8.8 million AR and VR headsets shipped.
Fumbling for a purpose
“You dum-dum! iPods, iPhones, even the MacBook Air, all solved real problems. Mixed-reality headsets solve nothing!” I hear you, which is why I bring up the Apple Watch.
Just watch the 2014 introduction of the wearable. It’s pretty clear Tim Cook and team didn’t know what people would use the device for, other than to tell time.
Do you know “Digital Touch,” which lets you send sketches, taps or even your heartbeat (!) to someone? If you said yes, I’d like to meet you, the one person who uses it.
The Apple Watch shipped anyway. But it took about four generations to land on a genuinely worthwhile purpose: health and fitness.
The headset stands to benefit from this if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach. The current crop of headsets—OK, I’m really mostly thinking of the Meta Quest line—still don’t have a clear killer app. There’s a lot of experimenting and brainstorming. Do you put on this headset to play immersive 3-D games? Watch movies? Take yoga classes on a virtual Machu Picchu? Have your holographic avatar call your holographic grandpa? Display six virtual computer monitors above your desk?
Apple is said to be trying out some of these features in this first iteration of the headset and is keen to see what apps developers build to take advantage of the capabilities. One measurement of success will be if Apple can get us to do things we never did before, like use one of these outside of our house.
Working with others
Few thought earbuds that looked like Q-tips were the next big thing but AirPods took off. The fact that Apple deleted the headphone jack from the iPhone helped. But the main recipe for success was how seamlessly the white ear sticks worked with the iPhone and other Apple gadgets. In the walled garden, everything plays nicely together.
Apple’s massive base of more than two billion active devices is an important calculation to any new product the company introduces, Gene Munster, a longtime Apple analyst and managing partner at Deepwater Assets Management, told me.
“Apple has the ability to basically create a market,” he said, because the company can integrate that new product within its thriving universe. It worked for AirPods, the Apple Watch and even the not-at-all-novel HomePod. (Yes, Apple’s smart speaker really is an also-ran that entered an already big market—IDC says it now has a 7.5% share of global shipments.)
The headset will likely integrate with FaceTime and other Apple services. There are also reports that it could be used as an external display for a connected Mac.
Pricing it right
But really, charging thousands for a device with a battery fanny pack and no real purpose? It doesn’t sound very Apple. At least the company has a track record of dropping prices on cutting-edge tech. The original, underpowered MacBook Air had a USD 1799 price tag. The much improved current one starts at USD 999.
“Within a few years these headsets won’t be USD 3000, they’ll be more like USD 700,” Munster said. “That’s when they’ll go mainstream.”
A few years? That’s optimistic, since the real goal—glasses that look like glasses but have all this fancy tech inside—could be a decade or more from reality. So grab onto your nerd helmet, everyone. It’s going to be a long ride.
Corrections & Amplifications
Apple has a global base of more than two billion active devices. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it has a base of two billion users. (Corrected on May 17, 2023)