As widely expected, Apple unveiled last night its “mixed reality” headset, the Vision Pro, its first new product category since the Apple Watch in 2014. The headset, that will ship early next year in the US, handles two different technologies: virtual reality (VR), that immerses users in a computer-generated virtual world, and augmented reality (AR), that overlays computer-generated graphics onto real world environments (see picture on the right).
The Vision Pro will allow users to see apps, such as PC windows, videoconferences or video games hovering around them and navigate through them with voice, eye or gesture instructions.
While the technology and its applications are futuristic, Apple’s device comes at a challenging time for VR/AR headsets as their bulky size and high retail prices (in a $500 to $1,000 range until now) have obviously been major hurdles to mass adoption. Meta’s Quest devices have sold only 20 million units since 2019 and, reportedly, suffer from low user engagement levels. And Sony’s initial sales of its PlayStation VR2, that shipped just a couple of months ago, have been underwhelming.
Apple’s Vision Pro, that looks like ski goggles and will retail at $3,499, is then unlikely to meaningfully change the situation in the short term and we mainly view the headset as a niche product targeting early adopters, to collect usage data and feedbacks, and app developers that are necessary to build an app ecosystem. While next generations of Vision Pro will undoubtedly be slimmer and more affordable, we suspect that Vision Pro will remain a niche product in the long term as users are unlikely to have a headset on all day long or every day.
In our view, the Vision Pro will be the opportunity for the Tech giant to test in real conditions the AR technology and will actually pave the way for AR glasses that have long been in the making at Apple and offer mass-market potential. AR glasses, that are already on the market (Snap, Oppo…), are indeed much more comfortable, allowing users to wear them most parts of the day (just like an Apple Watch), and provide compelling use cases such as shooting a video when biking or skiing, offering navigation when strolling in a city, or chasing zombies and monsters in a neighborhood… all that without having to hold a smartphone in the hand.
Interestingly, Tim Cook highlighted Vision Pro during his keynote speech more as an AR technology (that can be performed on glasses) than a VR one (that requires a headset).
That being said, we are probably 2-3 years away from Apple-branded AR glasses as several technical challenges still need to be overcome to get “high performance” AR glasses. First, the accurate superimposition of computer-generated images over transparent glasses necessitates very precise optical guides (called the combiner). Here, several techniques are competing and the winning one will offer the best compromise between visual precision and its ability to be mass produced at reasonable costs.
Second, the AR projection system must offer a wide range of colors, a high resolution, contrast, and brightness in order to come as close as possible to real-world images. The current principal method is the waveguide technology, which basically consists of a set of reflective surfaces transmitting images from a tiny emitting display located in the glasses’ frame to the user’s eyes. Achieving this is not without some obstacles: making the virtual image look like it is part of the scenery (depth of field, head tracking, luminosity, and contrast) and keeping the eye in focus while doing so requires prominent optics and hardware capabilities.
And a lot of work still needs to be done on the primary emitting display as standard LCD and even OLED screens are not satisfying enough in that matter, they remain too bulky and not bright enough for AR. Liquid Chrystal on Silicon (LCOS) and Micro LED technologies are currently among the most promising solutions.
Finally, a long-lasting (and thin enough) battery is also needed in order to enjoy AR without having to look for a power plug every 30 minutes.
Overall, the Apple initiative and unusual early entry into the technology, combined with Meta’s massive investments in the space (the company just announced its Quest 3 headset), confirm the massive potential of AR, which is one of the key pillars of our Metaverse theme, and suggest that the technology adoption could soon reach a turning point.