The big picture: Apple's first-gen mixed reality device will be expensive and won't ship until sometime next year, but the company appears confident it will sell over one million units within a year of launch. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg's Meta is scrambling to become the Android of mixed reality experiences and expects to launch an XR headset known internally as Project Cambria sometime in the coming months.
Apple expects to unveil its mixed reality headset sometime in January 2023, and the rumor mill has been abuzz with hints about it in recent months. For one, the Cupertino giant will supposedly lean on the Chinese market for the new device to improve its chances of success. Presumably, Chinese consumers have a higher appetite for exotic, aspirational products like AR/VR headsets.
Renowned analyst Ming-Chi Kuo claims the company has high hopes for this mysterious device as it plans to ship around 1.5 million units by the end of 2023. Kuo believes this will be Apple's "next revolutionary consumer electronics product after the iPhone," which is a pretty ambitious boast.
The media event in January is supposed to convince investors that innovation is very much alive at Apple and that it can still come up with products that invite imitators to copy every aspect of the user experience. The company will also talk extensively about use cases, ergonomics, and the software development opportunities around a mixed reality headset.
Kuo says Apple has yet to decide on a price tag for the new device, but it will most likely be in the range of $2,000 to $2,500. In theory, it could go even higher, but the company doesn't want to risk missing its target of 1.5 million headsets shipped by the end of next year.
Meanwhile, Apple is working on a more affordable mixed reality device, but it won't be ready until 2025 or later. Additionally, the company will reportedly unveil an AR-only headset in 2024 that is supposed to be the start of a decade-long transition away from the iPhone.
Apple showed the first-generation mixed reality headset to its board in May, but we know very little about the hardware powering these devices. According to several supply chain insiders, the device will use custom silicon with processing power similar to its M-series chipsets in the newest MacBook Pro refresh. Engineers have faced various challenges in dealing with thermal management and the digital signal processing of camera inputs. There has been some speculation that Apple will use 8K displays for the headset, yet another challenge.
This month, Korean publication The Elec learned that Samsung and LG are working on OLED on silicon (OLEDoS) tech, specifically designed for augmented and virtual reality applications. This type of microdisplay is thinner and can reach a higher pixel density when compared to traditional OLED tech, thanks to its silicon substrate.
For instance, Samsung plans to achieve pixel densities of over 3,000 ppi and a maximum display brightness of 10,000 nits by 2024. Both companies have already laid the groundwork for LEDoS tech featuring even higher pixel densities. However, Sony is currently the leading OLEDoS manufacturer, and up until now, analysts believe it is the go-to supplier for Apple's first-gen mixed reality headset.
On the software side, Apple has done an even better job of keeping things secret. We know that Cupertino will likely dub it "realityOS," thanks to some obscure references found by developers combing through the App Store's upload logs and source code. But that's about it.
Overall, it looks like it won't be long before Apple dives into the consumer mixed reality sector, where companies like Google and Microsoft have had little success. The Cupertino giant appears determined and even hired Meta's former communications director for Reality Labs and Oculus hardware, Andrea Schubert.
Speaking of Meta, no other company is more invested in the AR/VR space. The social media titan recently went through an expensive rebranding process and burned billions of dollars to quickly pivot from a social-media-focused company to one centered on conquering the metaverse.
The metaverse concept heavily relies on augmented and virtual reality, so much so that the reprioritization chaos ensuing at Meta is affecting employee morale. For Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, his company is now involved in a "deep, philosophical competition" with Apple — one that will define the future of the Internet and shape the mixed-reality ecosystem. In other words, it will also determine the fate of Meta as a company.
Zuckerberg sees Apple as a direct competitor wanting to apply the same principles that govern iOS and the App Store to create a closed mixed reality ecosystem. Meanwhile, Meta is trying to build something akin to Android or Windows, where multiple partners can develop ideas of their own crystallized into various hardware offerings and services.
Tim Cook's standpoint is that mixed reality will be just one component of Apple's future that has already taken off on the iPhone and iPad. More importantly, Cook expects to retire as soon as 2025 — but not before he has the chance to oversee the launch of "one major new product category."
While he may not share Zuckerberg's vision of the future of the Internet, it will be interesting to see if a Cook-powered Apple can repeat the resounding success seen with the iPhone.
Image credit: Dima Solomin