Apple will launch a VR headset before it launches augmented reality glasses.
At least, that’s what rumours say. But if I had to read the tea leaves based on WWDC alone, I’d say the plug has been pulled on the rumoured headset.
I’ll continue to stand by Robert Scoble’s opinion, which is that Apple simply doesn’t care about VR (excluding some pockets within the company).
The company’s plans to tackle VR first have been detailed at length by Mark Gurman:
“A device code-named N301 would take the best of both VR and AR—the first an all-encompassing digital experience for gaming and consuming content, and the second a tool for overlaying information such as text messages and maps in front of a viewer.
Incredibly Rich VR with Pass-Through AR
In Gurman’s account, the device sounds like VR with pass-through AR capabilities.
Wear it in “immersive” mode and see stunning VR experiences, watch live sports in VR (through their purchase of NextVR), and play games. Wear it in “overlay mode” and you can sit at home wearing goggles while reading web pages or checking out your Twitter mentions.
Gurman detailed the internal divisions at the company as they argue over whether VR goggles should be paired to a stand-alone processor:
N301 was initially designed to be an ultra-powerful system, with graphics and processing speeds previously unheard of for a wearable product. The processing capabilities were so advanced—and produced so much heat—that the technology couldn’t be crammed into a sleek headset. Instead, Rockwell’s team planned to sell a stationary hub…
“Ive balked at the prospect of selling a headset that would require a separate, stationary device for full functionality. “
He described the devices as being “Quest-like”:
“Prototypes of N301 look like a smaller Oculus Quest with a mostly fabric body but less plastic than the Quest “
The technology in the hub didn’t go entirely to waste: “Some is being recycled to build the powerful processors Apple plans to announce next week for its Macs, replacing components made by Intel Corp.)“
Steering Developers To The Future at WWDC
Apple does an insanely great job managing product road maps.
Not just internally. Instead, it is able to steer a ship with 20 million developers and direct them to the next destination.
Take SwiftUI as an example. Last year, the company launched it and began the slow migration of its developer community from ‘heavy’ storyboards towards a much lighter approach to app UI development.
The framework provided a clear map to a future in which you would program once, and the results would appear on multiple devices, with multiple sizes. Develop a single app design and it would appear beautiful on an iPhone or iPad.
This year, the first results of this migration were most visible in new home screen widgets and App Clips: super light weight pieces of content which are a natural product of the SwiftUI philosophy.
Similar to SwiftUI last year, this year you can see hints of how Apple is moving developers to a future in which AR glasses will play a key role:
- First, prepare “bite-sized” pieces of content, ready for a future display in Apple Glass. These pieces of content will appear in App Clips (a super small version of an app without the need to download that app) and new widgets for your phone’s home screen.
- Second, encourage developers (and their customers, such as retail stores), to place thousands of AR markers. Through new Apple-specific QR codes (and through NFC and other ways to ‘tap’), users can scan a code and bring up these App Clips.
- Finally, prepare users for AR experiences through the use of spatial audio via their new Air Pods Pro.
Three Things WWDC Did NOT Do
So, if WWDC is used to nudge developers in a particular direction, surely we would see hints of these coming VR goggles from this year’s event?
Maybe. But it would take some serious squinting to extrapolate VR from anything Apple presented.
Here are four ways in which Apple did NOT move the needle towards preparing or a launch of VR goggles:
Apple Silicon Wasn’t Positioned As A PS5
The big news of WWDC was the migration of Macs to new Apple chips. And yet the presentations almost solely focused on cross-platform rather than immersive experiences.
For example, they showed off how you’ll be able to play iPad apps on your Mac:
While they gave a brief nod to Unity and how good games would LOOK, they didn’t spend a lot of time positioning the new chip as a graphics powerhouse.
It was all about moving between your iPad and Mac. About running machine learning locally. And about making applications like photos run smoothly.
Metal And Other Frameworks
If “incredibly rich” in-goggle experiences were coming, you’d expect to see a lot more love given to frameworks like Metal. Launched with fanfare at a previous WWDC, the framework was given a bit of love during the breakout sessions but nothing to the degree you’d expect if VR was around the corner.
Instead, a lot of time during the breakouts is given over to streaming: audio, video and other formats.
This would tend to point more towards edge computing and perhaps cloud rendering. But it doesn’t point to preparing developers for on-device immersion.
Apple Silicon emphasized cross-platform applications and what I’ll loosely call “productivity”: nicer email programs, pop-out sidebars on iPad, better photo management.
But one thing that was strangely absent this year was much talk about games.
If I was a game developer attending WWDC, I’d feel like I had been given short shrift (other than being able to easily port my games to the coming generation of Macs).
And VR is, still, (and sadly) mostly considered a gaming platform. And if there were any hints that Apple was shifting more towards immersive games you’d be hard pressed to find it.
Can Apple Redefine The Market
Apple enters markets and redefines them. Usually, it doesn’t particularly invent anything new.
Instead, it’s able to take its fusion of hardware and software and do what others have done before, only better.
But it also generally helps to make a category “valid”. Tablets were considered a bit of a dud. And then iPad redefined the category. Now, iPad is clearly a centrepiece for Apple.
Same with Apple Watch.
But is there room to do the same with VR? Perhaps if Apple can redefine pass-through AR as a feature of VR glasses they can do something cool, especially if paired with an iPad say or Apple TV.
But with a new Playstation, Xbox and with new VR goggles coming over the coming year, Apple would be launching into a market where consumers will have already made choices about new devices. They will NOT have had the chance to do the same thing when it comes to AR glasses.
I’m a skeptic about Apple launching into VR. Based on WWDC, I saw nothing to indicate that my skepticism is wrong.
Instead, what I expect we’ll learn over the coming years is that like an Apple car, the company spent hundreds of millions developing a product which would never saw the light of day, yet whose lessons would inform other developments.