Apple Is Breaking Its Own Rules With a New Headset

Unlike other Apple products, the device is debuting in a still-experimental mode.
Unlike other Apple products, the device is debuting in a still-experimental mode.


  • Apple’s soon-to-be-revealed mixed-reality device will likely cost $3,000, requires a separate battery pack and is still experimental

Apple in the coming weeks is expected to unveil what is perhaps the most experimental, unconventional product in its history: a so-called mixed-reality headset that resembles a pair of ski goggles and comes with a battery pack, people familiar with the matter say.

Apple’s launch plans break many of its traditions and rules about new products that have become the industry gold standard. Unlike other Apple products, the device is debuting in a still-experimental mode. Apple predicts slower adoption for the headset compared with the Apple Watch or the iPhone, both of which quickly became consumer must-haves. Taking seven years in development before hitting the market, it will be one of the most complex consumer products any company has ever sold.

The Apple headset will combine both augmented and virtual reality into a single device—a term the industry calls mixed reality. Users wearing the headset, for instance game players, will be able to experience their virtual worlds through the screen in the goggles, but also be able to simultaneously see the physical world around them thanks to outward facing cameras, said people familiar with the project.

Company engineers and executives have spent months preparing presentations with a demo version of the device for Apple’s upcoming annual software conference in June. But it isn’t expected to be delivered for most users until the fall at the earliest, people familiar with the supply chain said. Some Apple employees and suppliers have questioned whether the rollout could be delayed given the challenges with integrating the headset with new software, its production and the broader market, people familiar with the product’s development said. Apple could still make changes to its timeline.

The headset’s tentative introduction to the market, with known hurdles, contrasts with Apple’s usual path where products are introduced to the world as fully formed. The expected $3,000 price tag is out of the realm for many consumers, and the company is already anticipating some production issues. Apple is putting out the headset with a battery in a pack expected to be the size of something that fits in one hand and separate from the goggles—a design concession unusual for Apple’s typically sleek and minimal product philosophy.

Executives and tech analysts say Apple isn’t waiting longer because it would take too much time to make its ideal version, competitors are already in the market and the company has already devoted a lot of capital and resources into developing the headset.

For Apple’s first new major product in a decade—the Apple Watch was announced in 2014—Chief Executive Tim Cook has a lot on the line as the device attempts to dominate the virtual world where people spend time for work or leisure, called the metaverse, which hasn’t yet reached mass adoption or understanding.

There is growing skepticism among some investors and potential future partners that consumers will spend money and time on the metaverse. They note some early adopters are disillusioned with the technology.

Facebook-owner Meta Platforms has struggled to keep users engaged and maintain sales for its latest virtual-reality headsets. Walt Disney Co. shut down the division developing strategies for the metaverse. Microsoft recently shut down a social virtual-reality platform it acquired in 2017 and trimmed back the team building a headset that it had been preparing as part of a U.S. military project.

“Apple is absolutely standing on top of the many bodies that are trying to climb up that mountain," said Rony Abovitz, the founder and former CEO of Magic Leap, an augmented-reality startup whose private valuation has plummeted in recent years. “And look, if you’re a multi trillion-dollar company, you have the luxury of waiting."

In Apple’s history, the company has defied skeptics with how swiftly consumers adoptedmost of its products. The market for digital music players before the iPod was small. Smartphones were still clunky with physical keyboards before the iPhone. Before the Apple Watch, wearables were a nascent category with limited appeal to people outside of the tech industry. In each of those categories, Apple’s entry vastly expanded the markets.

Some industry players expect Apple’s headset to lift the entire market for metaverse products. Some people who havetried out Apple’s device said its capabilities far exceed those of competitors, with greater levels of performance and immersion. Various details about the headset have been reported by Bloomberg and The Information, a technology news outlet.

“For a mass-market audience, virtual reality still lacks a killer app outside of gaming," said Jitesh Ubrani, research manager at IDC. The iPod had music. The iPhone had a digital camera, worked as a phone and offered a web browser.

Analysts, engineers and tech executives have come up with other ways to use the headset beyond gaming, such as virtual fitness classes or virtual meetings among colleagues around the world. Some see it as a way to enhance education by making some kinds of training more experiential. It could one day be used to help surgeons perform operations.

Many in the industry think that the market for this technology still has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential: a regular-looking pair of glasses that could fully immerse someone in a digital world. The necessary technologies to bring such a product to fruition—including computing hardware that is small and energy-efficient enough to fit into eyeglasses—are still likely around a decade away, according to industry officials.

Mass productionof Apple’s headset isn’t expected until September due to manufacturing delays, people familiar with the issue said. Shipment forecasts for 2023 are estimated at 200,000 to 300,000 units, said Apple analyst Ming-chi Kuo—much smaller figures than the first-year production for the initial generations of the iPhone and Apple Watch.

China-based assembler Luxshare has taken charge of producing the device and is planning to make a high-end, next generation version that is expected to be introduced in 2025, while Foxconn, Apple’s biggest iPhone assembler, is expected to make a lower-end second-generationversion, according to Mr. Kuo.

The device is expected to come with a high price tag of around $3,000—triple Meta’s most expensive Quest Pro headset. Even at that level, it will mean slim hardware margins for Apple as the company builds up production, people familiar with the issue said.

Apple has also had to make significant design concessions, such as the device’s external battery pack that could sit on users’ waists, those people said. The contraption will also fully enclose the user’s eyes like a pair of safety goggles, said the people, preventing wearers from being able to directly view their surroundings as they would with a normal pair of glasses.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me as an Apple product," said Michael Gartenberg, a former senior director of worldwide product marketing at Apple who left in 2016. He said he thinks Mr. Cook prefers to sell products that appeal to a mass market, and the headset is likely to appeal to enthusiasts.

Mike Rockwell, the Apple vice president in charge of the headset project, joined the company in 2015 from audio technology company Dolby and began building a massive team. In the early days, the group maintained a lot of independence and operated almost like a startup, with freedom to experiment, said former employees. The team built many different hardware prototypes and demos, including a giant contraption to show off the ideal performance of a headset. Even if the device capabilities were impressive, team members were aware that the technical limitations of building such a device that could sit on a person’s face were extreme, the former employees said.

One early idea was for the headset to be wirelessly connected to a base station to offload the heavy amounts of computation it requires, some of the former employees said. Jony Ive, chief design officer at the time, resisted that product design and encouraged the group to develop a stand-alone headset, said people familiar with the matter.Mr. Ive departed Apple in 2019 and served as an outside consultant until last year.

In 2019 Kim Vorrath, a longtime Apple software manager, was brought in to help shift the group’s focus to launching the product, said people familiar with the move. With Ms. Vorrath in the mix, the headset team worked more according to Apple’s product-development standards and timelines, the people said.

Mr. Rockwell’s team has since ramped up and has been operating in an intense, high-pressure mode aiming to launch a sleek and functional device, people familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Rockwell’s team had previously planned to ship the device many times over the past few years, and delays have included coordinating the software to run properly with the hardware, said former employees and other people familiar with the matter.

Supporting a developer ecosystem will be key to the success or failure of the headset, since wearers will need worlds to download and immerse themselves into. Apple employees are trying to develop a “killer app" for the headset and have worked on a FaceTime-like product and ways to port its mobile apps to the device, people familiar with the preparations said.

By announcing it at the developer conference in June, Apple would be signaling it wants the event to kick-start developer interest for making headset content. Many sessions will be devoted to development of software for the new headset, people familiar with the conference schedule said.

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