There have been plenty of rumours over the years detailing VR headsets, AR headsets and AR glasses, so what exactly has Apple got planned for its augmented reality future? The bevvy of rumours, leaks, acquisitions and new hires at Apple suggest that it could be a combination of all three, possibly due for release over a number of years.
Apple’s AR/VR development team is reportedly comprised of over 1,000 Apple employees, all dedicated to working the emerging technologies into upcoming products. This is backed up by specific AR/VR-inspired Apple hires over recent years, and the company has also acquired a handful of companies that specialise in either AR/VR tech, or content tailored to those platforms.
It makes sense in a way – Apple has always said that AR is a very interesting technology, and it effectively already has the largest AR app offering in the world via ARKit-integrated apps on the App Store, so it wouldn’t be a huge step to transfer AR-focused apps to a headset platform that’d provide a more immersive, enjoyable experience than holding up a smartphone in front of you.
The company reportedly has multiple headset prototypes on the go, focused not only on augmented reality but virtual reality too.
The end game for Apple is expected to be a fully-fledged pair of augmented reality glasses, tentatively dubbed Apple Glass by leaker Jon Prosser, but the tech is still in its infancy and a few years away from release. We cover the latest Apple AR Glasses news separately for those interested in the upcoming smart glasses.
The solution, according to various sources, could be an AR/VR hybrid headset similar to the Oculus Quest 2, due for release in the not-so-far future. Here’s all you need to know about Apple’s foray into the world of AR/VR headsets, including the latest leaks and a possible release window.
When will the Apple AR/VR headset be released?
When it comes to Apple’s initial AR/VR headset, Bloomberg suggests that the headset will be a “pricey, niche” option, and that Apple allegedly expects to only sell 180,000 units (along the lines of the Mac Pro) when it’s released in 2022 – a release window backed up by a separate report from The Information.
Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has also backed up the 2022 release date, claiming he'd seen order details for Yujingguang - a Taiwanese lens manufacturer - to supply high-quality VR lenses not only to Apple, but Meta and Sony too, expecting headsets from all three manufacturers to launch in 2022.
While some had hoped the 'Peek Performance' tagline of Apple's March 2022 was a tease of its AR plans, there was no such luck - instead that event focussed on updates to the iPhone SE and iPad Air, along with a brand-new Mac Studio.
Kuo has predicted a late Q4 2022 release for the upcoming headset - a window he reiterated once again in January 2022. That puts it beyond the early Q4 launch of the iPhone 14, suggesting we could see a December launch like the (equally niche) AirPods Max.
However, thanks to early production issues, Kuo suggests that headset stock will be limited until early 2023 when "more significant shipments" of the headset begin to appear.
That aligns with a February 2022 report from DigiTimes, which has stated that Apple's upcoming headset has completed production tests and suggests that the headset would go into mass production "in August-September before hitting the market by the end of the year".
The most recent report from Bloomberg suggests that we might have to wait a little longer, however.
While Apple had originally planned to announce the headset at WWDC 2022 later this year, "development challenges related to overheating, cameras and software have made it harder to stay on track,". The publication suggests that these issues have caused Apple to delay the announcement until the end of 2022, or maybe even early 2023.
However, in a separate May 2022 report, Bloomberg claims that Apple has recently shown the AR/VR headset to its board, indicating that the headset is at an advanced stage in its development.
The report also suggests that Apple has also ramped up development of rOS, the software that'll run on the headset, in recent weeks, suggesting the release could be sooner than initially expected.
With all that in mind, we're confident that we'll see Apple's long-rumoured AR/VR headset sometime in late 2022, though don't expect plenty of stock to be available at launch.
How much will the Apple AR/VR headset cost?
Bloomberg suggests that the headset is expected to be much more expensive than existing standalone VR headsets, which currently range from the £299/$299 Oculus Quest 2 to the enterprise-focused £905/$799 HTC Vive Focus Plus, although the publication didn’t suggest a specific price.
A prediction from JPMorgan Chase industry analyst Yang Weilun suggests that it could be significantly more expensive, allegedly costing Apple around $500 per unit to manufacture, and the huge report from The Information suggests it could be as much as an eye-watering $3,000.
With The Information suggesting that Apple will forgo the consumer market and focus on business, the price begins to make sense - after all, the competing Microsoft HoloLens costs around $3500.
DSCC also believes that the headset will be a premium offering, expecting "the Apple headset to cost several thousand dollars" in an early 2022 prediction, suggesting that it'll be targeted mainly at "professionals and developers to expand Apple’s ecosystem in AR/VR".
However, a conflicting claim from Ming-Chi Kuo claims that while it will be premium, it won't be that premium. Instead, Kuo claims that it'll be in line with the price of a "high-end iPhone", costing around $1000 in the US.
With high-end specs detailed in leaks and rumours, a high price tag isn't much of a surprise.
What to expect from Apple’s AR/VR headset
Apple’s first dedicated headset will focus not only on augmented reality but virtual reality too, with a plethora of details available courtesy of an early 2021 Bloomberg report.
The details seem to have come from an Apple insider following an internal employee meeting in 2020 where execs detailed exciting new features expected to ship with the headset, including 3D scanning and advanced human detection, to aid augmented and virtual performance.
In terms of general design, the headset is said to look similar to that of the Facebook-owned Oculus Quest 2, albeit with a sleeker design (it’s an Apple product, after all) and lightweight fabrics and materials that help maintain a comfortable fit over longer sessions.
Ming-Chi Kuo suggests current prototypes weigh between 200-300g, but the company is aiming for 100-200g as long as it can solve a few outstanding technical problems.
One area it's looking to shave off bulk is in the lens department, with Kuo detailing a 'pancake' lens system. In a note obtained by Cult of Mac, the upcoming headset will use "3P pancake" lenses supplied by Genius and Young Optics.
The lenses, said to allow for a lighter and more compact design, feature several sheets of glass packed tightly together to reduce the overall form factor. Those with DSLR or mirrorless cameras who use large lenses will be familiar with the concept.
However, despite Apple’s approach to fanless technology – even at the cost of performance, like with the MacBook Air M1 – Kuo suggests Apple may include a fan to keep the headset cool.
While Apple has looked into using its virtual assistant, Siri, to control the headset, the company is also looking into the possibility of bundling a physical remote. Though Bloomberg couldn’t provide details on the remote, the MacRumours discovery of a photo from iOS 14 depicting a controller similar to that used with the Vive Focus could give us a rough idea of what’s expected.
It could also tie in to the Remote app on your iPhone, allowing you to control the headset the same way you would an Apple TV, although that’s just an educated guess from us at Tech Advisor right now.
Much of that was backed up by a huge report from The Information, citing sources "with direct knowledge" of the headset, suggesting a similar form factor to the Oculus Quest 2, but in a noticeably slimmer shell. Going by drawings from the publication, it could be similar in thickness to a pair of ski goggles. If true, that's an impressive feat of engineering.
It also sheds more light on the potential remote, describing a "thimble-like device" that would be used alongside hand tracking to interact with virtual and augmented objects in real-time.
Per Bloomberg, the headset allegedly features an Apple-designed chip that’s more powerful than the Mac-focused M1 chipset, allowing the company to include a high-resolution display and cameras that allow users to “read small type” and allow the user to “see other people standing in front of and behind virtual objects” according to the reports.
Ming-Chi Kuo suggests that the headset will actually pack two chipsets, with the higher-powered of the two close to the performance of the M1 chipset, while the lower-end chipset will handle sensor operations exclusively. Combined, the headset will offer the "same level of computing power as M1".
In a follow-up note in early 2022, Kuo claimed that the headset will require the same 96W charger as the 14in MacBook Pro which "proves that Apple AR/MR requires the same level of computing power as the MacBook Pro and is significantly higher than the iPhone".
The downside to the combination of MacBook-level power and a lightweight design is that something has to be sacrificed, and it seems that may be battery life. According to WCCFTech, Apple isn't designing the headset to be used for long periods of time, but instead, it's designed for small, purposeful bursts.
CEO Tim Cook has previously spoken about the concerns he has about how Apple's products are used for endless scrolling, so this could be a way to force users to dip a toe into the augmented world, rather than live in it.
Ming-Chi Kuo has also suggested that the upcoming HMD from Apple will sport Wi-Fi 6/6E at release to "improve the wireless experience", offering "significantly better" transmission speed and power consumption than Wi-Fi 5, and pointed towards Oculus Air Link as an example.
The Information suggests the headset could include not one but two 8K displays, putting the headset leagues above the current competition. Not even most TVs offer 8K resolution just yet.
However, Ming-Chi Kuo suggests something a little more realistic; two 4K displays. More specifically, the headset is alleged to make use of two 4K Micro OLED displays from Sony for a high-end AR/VR experience.
Display Supply Chain Consultants adds more spice to proceedings with an early 2022 prediction detailing a triple-display system. It too suggests Apple will use two 4K Micro OLED displays to drive visuals, but also mentions a third relatively low-res AMOLED panel - a first for a VR/AR headset if true.
As explained, the third display could be "for low-resolution peripheral vision, thereby enabling a foveated display system" which could effectively remove the tunnel vision present in all current VR headsets.
To go with the incredibly high-res displays, The Information suggests Apple is planning on including eye-tracking tech that'll "fully render only parts of the display where the user is looking", allowing the headset to render lower-quality graphics along the user's periphery vision and reduce overall computing needs without a noticeable visual downgrade.
It’ll also be able to map surfaces, edges and environments with Bloomberg claiming it boasts "greater accuracy than existing devices on the market" to provide true 1:1 tracking in virtual and augmented reality environments. The built-in cameras could also track hand movements, and even project a virtual keyboard onto physical surfaces for typing.
The Information goes a step further, suggesting that the headset will "be equipped with more than a dozen cameras for hand tracking movements and showing video of the real world to people wearing it".
While the tech – especially the ability to see people standing in front of virtual objects in a real environment – sound more tailored to augmented reality, Bloomberg and The Information agree that the main focus will instead be virtual reality, with the AR capabilities being "more limited" after allegedly hitting several development hurdles.
Apple allegedly wants to create a dedicated App Store for the headset, putting a particular spotlight on gaming, streaming video content and virtual communication – much like Oculus’ latest standalone headset. According to Bloomberg, the headset will offer "an all-encompassing 3-D digital environment" focused on gaming, streaming content and catching up with friends (or possibly work colleagues, depending on your setup).
Not much else was said on that front until 2022, when iOS developers started noticing references to a new operating system called "realityOS". It has been spotted in various places, including Apple's own opensource dyld repository on GitHub, and App Store upload logs too. The latter suggests that, as Bloomberg reported, the headset will likely have its own App Store where developers can submit and distribute apps for the new headset.
Steve Troughton-Smith, a popular iOS developer, shared screenshots of references to realityOS - and a realityOS simulator for devs - on Twitter.
It's not the first time that the name has appeared either; it was also referenced in an iOS 13 beta, lending credence to the whole concept.
Other rumours suggest that Apple could be working with Valve on its upcoming headset. Valve shipped its own high-end VR headset, the Valve Index, back in April 2019 and it’s still regularly out of stock, showcasing just how well Valve knows its VR-focused audience.
It’s not the first time it has happened either – Valve worked with Apple to bring VR support to macOS Sierra via eGPU support and macOS support for SteamVR software – so it’s entirely possible that the two companies could work together on Apple’s upcoming headset.
However, with a predicted (and missed) 2020 release in the same report, we’re not too sure how accurate the DigiTimes report is, so take that one with a pinch of salt.