Apple’s New Headset Credit:apple.com
After years of speculation Apple finally unveiled its much-anticipated mixed reality headset. Called the Vision Pro, it is the tech-giant’s first major new product since it introduced the Apple Watch in 2015: Apple Vision Pro – Apple. The headset which Apple calls a ‘spatial computer’, has two high-resolution screens wired to an external battery pack that fits into one’s pocket providing power for two hours of usage. A dial lets the user toggle between different levels of immersion (AR/VR/MR). The device is controlled using eye contact through built-in cameras and Lidar (Light Detection And Ranging) for the recognition of hand gestures plus voice control to select apps displayed on a huge internal ‘canvas’. The announcement comes years after other Big-Tech Giants have unsuccessfully tried to introduce high-tech headsets to the mass-market. In 2014 Facebook bought the startup Oculus for USD 2 billion and has since then released two generations of its headsets, primarily used by gamers. Microsoft in 2016 made a big bet on its HoloLens headset, designed as a 3-D augmented reality device. Despite the announcement of a much-improved HoloLens 2 in 2019, the product has failed to gain traction with consumers: Microsoft HoloLens | Mixed Reality Technology for Business. Google got plenty of media-attention more than a decade ago with its Google Glass, a lightweight spectacle with a camera on board. The product was very much criticized by early developers for its lack of functionality. Hence, what are Apple’s motives to enter this market?
Augmented Reality (AR) combines the digital world with the real world. Computer vision and motion tracking are key features as data is collected in real time with cameras and Lidar including laser beams to ‘see’ the world in 3-D. Hence, AR defines a technology that overlays digital content onto the physical world without separating the user from their physical surroundings.
Virtual Reality (VR) simulates an artificial view of reality. Headsets such as the Oculus 2 use sensory devices to translate real-world movements into a computer-modelled 3-D space defined by the term ‘Metaverse’.
Ever since renaming his company to Meta, Marc Zuckerberg has been criticized for the immense financial losses so far accumulated with his Metaverse strategy. Yet at a meeting with Meta employees, he stated that Apple’s VR device did not present any major breakthroughs in technology that Meta had not “already explored” and that Apple’s vision about how people will use the device is “not the one that I want”. He also pointed to the fact that Meta’s upcoming Oculus 3 headset (now called Meta Quest 3) will be much cheaper. Because it is priced at USD 499.- compared to the Vision Pro’s USD 3’499.-, this highly improved VR headset with 128GB of on-board memory is likely to attract far more users.
Mixed Reality (MR) is the combination between AR and VR. This technology might become mainstream for consumers and businesses alike. It enables instinctive interaction with data, while eliminating screen-based work. The outstanding feature of Apple’s Vision Pro is its ability to switch seamlessly between AR und VR, providing an entirely new experience for gaming or the ability to design new products and to solve structural limitations as a prerequisite for 3-D printing.
What is Apple’s Risk?
Despite Apple’s successful track record there are grounds for scepticism when it comes to the future of Mixed Reality (MR) headsets. Why would mainstream consumers – not the early adopters or impassioned gamers – wear something on their head for an extended period of time? Introducing another issue, Edward Saatchi, the founder of Oculus’s Story Studio, says that he is not convinced that MR will succeed. There are significant differences between producing AR and VR content. “AR and VR present significantly different design challenges and you cannot port an AR app over to a VR app,” Saatchi added. Following this line of thought, one must acknowledge that Apple was not the first company to produce a smartphone or a MP3-player. However, it was the first company to create a simple music store supported by the music industry to download music. Moreover, one should keep in mind that the iPhone represented a dramatic leap forward over what the BlackBerry and other smartphone platforms offered in 2007. Today Apple’s biggest advantage is their huge customer base and the seamless integration of applications across the entire range of their consumer products. It certainly makes sense that Apple is focusing its market entry on developers. Given the high price and the relatively low volumes to be expected, it is much better to provide a very powerful headset to early adaptors and save the consumers for follow-on products with better features at a lower price. Apple’s vision goes beyond bulky MR headsets. According to insider information, Apple is working on a device that looks like an ordinary lightweight pair of glasses with similar features. In a smart move Apple has introduced a great tool to test the market, providing guidance towards the design of future products. The demand for mobility and AI is likely to grow and Apple is in an excellent position to explore future opportunities without taking excessive risks. Its biggest risk, however, is the timing of their announcement vis-à-vis the present financial market turmoil and the uncertainties about the future of Big-Tech companies in general.
From AR to Digital Twins
AR is used in a variety of applications, from gaming to education and it is supporting many industries to improve efficiency and safety at the workplace. AR can be used to provide workers with real-time information relative to objects they are working on, thereby helping them to make better decisions. A technician equipped with an AR headset can point to a specific relay of an electrical circuit that needs to be replaced while his supervisor located miles away uses his own headset to provide guidance how to repair the circuit in real-time. Based on the capability of creating and simulating digital objects with software at a very high resolution plus the ability to interact with these objects in real-time, the term ‘Digital Twin’ has emerged which defines a new technology of computer-interaction. This concept became popular after the consulting company Gartner, back in 2018, named digital twins as one of the top ten strategic technology trends. Gartner defines a digital twin as digital representation of a real-world entity or system. Its implementation is accomplished by an assembly of software that mirrors the structure of a unique physical object, a process, an organization or an individual. In essence, a digital twin is a computer program that takes real-world data of a physical object or system as input and produces as output predictions, simulating as to how that physical object or system will react to the input. Data from multiple digital twins can be aggregated for a composite view across several real-world entities, for example for factory-management to provide information for maintenance-scheduling or for a city to simulate various expansion alternatives. Addressing the consumer market, digital twins can provide a 360-degree view of customer’s behaviour including all the details that a company’s business units and systems collect about them, such as online and in-store purchasing activities, demographic information and payment methods. Current research from McKinsey indicates that seventy percent of C-suite technology executives of large enterprises are exploring and investing in digital twins as a tool to support decision-making. Based on this activity – further driven by increasing computer and analytics performance – McKinsey is projecting investments in digital twin technology amounting to USD 48 billion, representing a fifty-eight percent compound annual growth rate between now and 2026.
Next to gaming, AR/VR devices provide powerful tools to increase productivity. As research and technology continues to advance at an exponential rate, we can assume that AR/VR technology indeed drives a paradigm-shift in computing. However, this raises the same privacy-protection and misinformation concerns that already exist today. Monitoring an AR/VR device provides a new opportunity to profile and monetize the behaviour of individuals. Hence – more than ever – corporate and government policymakers are challenged to shape the regulatory environment that encourages innovation while establishing the necessary safeguards against misuse and fraud. Trust in the companies that provide AR/VR services is the decisive factor for realizing the potential benefits this technology can provide.