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Apple’s mixed reality headset is a safeguard against future disruptions


What if Apple came out with its most important new product in years and the world yawned?

Next week’s expected reveal of Apple’s mixed reality headset — a product that combines virtual reality with augmented reality, overlapping a digital world with the real thing — feels strangely out of step with the times.

Generative AI has taken the tech industry by storm this year. It could be the most significant new way to interact with computers in a long time, with the kind of impact that came with the iPhone’s multi-touch display 16 years ago.

It is not yet clear what impact this new form of AI will have on the Apple-dominated smartphone domain. ChatGPT’s text-rich interactions are not suitable for small screens, and voice and image-based applications of the technology for handsets are still in development. But for now, this has become the main experimental focus of the tech industry, rather than the immersive world of VR.

Even without this explosion of interest in another corner of the tech world, the headset that Apple has spent years perfecting would feel foreign to most consumers. At about $3,000, the high price will limit sales to a handful of enthusiasts, as well as developers who want to create software for it. And the world hasn’t demanded a cheaper VR device (Meta’s Quest 2 will soon retail for just $299). Most people who have tried virtual reality are amazed at the novelty, but feel little need to put on a headset if they want to work, game or be entertained.

However, Apple’s venture into virtual and augmented reality should be judged against a broader set of objectives. It’s best viewed as a safeguard against future technological disruption, a relatively modest but still useful extension of Apple’s existing universe of services and gadgets, and a placeholder for a technological revolution that is likely to last many years.

The hedge is against threats to Apple’s iPhone empire. It’s not clear if or when the smartphone will lose its central place in people’s digital lives, but Apple clearly needs to focus more on the future.

The company formerly known as Facebook was the first to take the leap beyond the smartphone, acquiring VR company Oculus nine years ago. It clearly failed: only 8.5 million VR headsets were sold last year, according to an estimate by the Interactive Data Corporation. That still leaves the field wide open for Apple.

Even if sales are minimal over a long period of time, the headset should be a fairly profitable addition to Apple’s lineup and another way to more closely tie users into the expanding digital universe. With a range of proprietary digital services, such as music, video content and game subscriptions, Apple will be well positioned to develop the VR experiences needed to drive demand for its headsets.

The 34 million software developers registered to work on Apple’s devices represent an even more powerful asset. It’s not clear what the “killer apps” will be for VR, but the combined efforts of these folks make it likely they’ll be coming first to Apple’s headsets.

This has left most Wall Street analysts optimistic about the expected expansion of Apple’s hardware lineup. For example, Goldman Sachs predicts that headset sales will reach $18 billion five years from now. That would provide a useful boost to Apple’s division that sells wearables, home appliances and accessories, which posted $41 billion in sales last year. A wild card is the high-margin services sold alongside the headsets: if consumers are willing to pay for the highly immersive experiences that come with VR, software sales could eventually eclipse the amount spent on hardware each year , as in the console. gaming market.

Finally, as a substitute in an important new category of technology, an Apple headset would be a statement of intent rather than an end in itself. As impressive as the technology behind the device is, it will still suffer from the problem common to all VR and AR headsets: Most people don’t want to put on a bulky headset or shut themselves off from the world to enjoy another digital experience. enter rich.

Until the same experiences can be incorporated into lightweight eyewear – or even someday contact lenses that make the technology completely invisible – it’s unlikely that VR and AR will infiltrate everyday life the way smartphones did. But when Apple finally launches its headset next week, it’s taken the all-important first step.


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