Apple's mixed-reality headset: Here's what you need to know
Earlier this week, Meta rolled out its Quest Pro Virtual Reality (VR) headset, priced at $1,499. Many questioned the need for a high-end VR headset when the company's Quest 2 headset appears to be doing rather well. However, as Mark Zuckerberg mentioned in his conversation with The Verge, the tech world is waiting for Apple to reveal its offering in this space, which has been long expected and expected to be priced rather higher.
The official launch of Apple's mixed reality headset was expected to happen in 2022. In the recent past, we have had Apple products being announced much earlier than their actual availability, so a 2022 launch could still be possible. To prepare you for such an event, here's what you need to know about the Apple headset.
What is mixed reality?
Before we delve into the details of the device, here is a short explainer of why the Apple device is not a regular VR headset. The purpose of VR is to deliver a completely immersive experience. To do so, headsets cut the user's focus off their surroundings by dimming the peripheral vision and providing audio, visual, and often tactile feedback to make the experience more relatable.
In contrast, augmented reality (AR) allows the user to experience their surroundings while adding a digital layer over it to create a new reality. The most popular example of this would be Pokemon GO, where gamers could use their smartphones to explore a hidden world in their surroundings. While this might not be as immersive as VR, the technology opens up new applications, and this seems to be the area Apple is more interested in.
By supporting both VR and AR, Apple's mixed reality headset is attempting to deliver the best of both worlds.
Apple's thirst for VR/AR isn't new and has been in the works for the past six-seven years. According to MacRumors, for some time, Apple even considered supplementing the headset with an external processor connected using a short-range high speed 60 GHz wireless connection. However, the plan was dropped in favor of a conventional headset design with inbuilt processors.
Apple's desire to foray into the mixed reality space is evident from the wide range of acquisitions undertaken and patents filed, which have provided analysts with insights into the direction the company is taking.
As early as 2017, Apple acquired Vrvana, which was developing a mixed-reality headset that was never made public. In 2015, it acquired augmented reality company Metaio, which built software that could construct AR scenarios in minutes. More recently, the acquisition of NextVR in 2020 adds the ability to combine VR with sports and entertainment events, while acquisitions of Faceshift, which has developed technology to create animated avatars, and AI start-up Emotient, could give users the power to not only create their avatars but also replicate facial expressions more accurately.
Even with its mixed-reality offering, Apple's headset will not look very different from those of its peers. The display side of the headset is likely to be equipped with a mesh-like material to provide a comfortable fit. On the rear end will be a headband made with material that the company uses for its Watch, although here Apple wants to give users some freedom.
The headbands are expected to be swappable and could be equipped with extra features like providing a surround sound experience or simply adding more battery power to increase the endurance of the headset.
Meta's Quest Pro 2 boasted 10 sensors for delivering the VR experience, but Apple plans to go above and beyond by deploying more than a dozen cameras to track hand movements and map the environment. The cameras will also be tasked with accurately replicating facial expressions in the digital avatars while also handling tasks for biometric identification, where necessary.
Apple is also reportedly using "pancake lenses" in its headset to deliver a thinner and lighter device than its peers. The resolution of the displays inside the headset is expected to consist of at least 4K micro OLED displays with a pixel density of 3,000 pixels per inch, with CNET reporting that Apple could also pack 8K displays instead. The close fit of the device could mean that spectacle users won't be able to wear these headsets with their glasses on, but Apple could very well add the option to add prescription lenses over the screens, for an additional fee, of course.
Apple's alleged plans to fit two M2 processors, like the ones that it uses on its MacBook Air, probably indicate the processing power the headsets will be provided with. This also means that the battery pack on the device will be a large one, and Apple wants to charge it quickly using a 96W charger, MacRumors has reported previously.
Like it did to revolutionize the smartphone, Apple is also expected to radically change how people interact with their VR/AR environments. Handheld controllers are the analogs of fixed keyboards in the virtual world, and Apple wants to do away with them as much as possible.
Its headset is expected to use a lot of eye tracking and hand gestures to deliver a more intuitive experience. There are also reports that users will be able to scan their irises to quickly log into their accounts and make payments, similar to Face ID and Touch ID. Where absolutely essential, a controller might be used, but like all things Apple, the device is expected to be rather small and personal, like a thimble worn on a finger.
What will it be called?
That the headset is in a new league of Apple products with, hopefully, a long-term future is evident in the fact that Apple has created a new operating system for it. According to patent application files, as well as in references in Apple's source code, the OS has been dubbed Reality OS (rOS).
Apple is also keen on creating an exclusive App store for the mixed reality device. In fact, a decision to unveil the device much before it is ready to ship might be spurred by a desire to attract developers early on. When ready for launch, the device may be called Reality One, and we might even see a Pro version announced later, CNET said in its report.
It is likely that Apple's mixed reality headset could end up being priced as high as $3,000, which would still be less than Microsoft's Holo Lens 2, at around $3,500. If that's the case, then Meta's Quest Pro might seem like a bargain in comparison, although it would also make the prices of currently available VR headsets seem quite low.
Nevertheless, one can trust Apple to deliver the product only when it is truly ready to change the status quo, and even if you were willing to shell out $3,000 this instant, Tim Cook and co. are not likely to hand over a device that gives users a half-baked experience.
Beyond the price tag, it is Apple's vision for its headsets that makes them newsworthy. The high-priced device is initially aimed at content creators, developers, and professionals. It will offer highly immersive and interactive experiences, whether you are consuming content or using FaceTime, but over time, Apple may also look to the headset as the device that will ultimately replace its most successful product so far, the iPhone.
This vision may be at least a decade away from now, and in the meantime, the headset may shrink further to look more like mixed-reality glasses. Apple has plans in the works for a sleeker pair of augmented reality glasses to be released at a later date. Despite the failure of Google Glass, it seems that's where Apple believes the world is headed.
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