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Did AR/VR Just Have Its iPhone Moment?
To say the last three years of the Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality (AR/VR) space have been a roller coaster doesn’t begin to describe the ups and downs. In fact, it has kind of been that way for years. The pattern of exciting developments, false starts, promising advances, and outright failure has marked the journey since it started.
Everyone following this space has been waiting for the “iPhone moment,” when the technology finally reaches a place where the mass market “gets it” and then actually obtains it.
So far, AR/VR hasn’t had that singular moment as the point where mass adoption of the technology started. The problem with iPhone moments is that it’s difficult to realize in the present precisely the scope and impact of what has happened. In the case of the iPhone, it took a few years for people to finally accept that the revolutionary smartphone would change the mobile phone space forever. It’s only when viewed in hindsight that the zeitgeist change is visible.
In the absence of such a galvanizing moment in AR/VR, that perfect convergence of vision and product, much of the focus of the last few years has been on Meta. While their Metaverse vision seems further away than ever, they have made steady progress on the VR device front.
Still, there has been a sense of hope that we would eventually have the iPhone moment in the AR/VR industry, and that Apple might be the only one that could actually pull it off, just as they did 15 years ago with the now-ubiquitous iPhone itself.
Enter the Apple Vision Pro
If you aren’t yet familiar with the Apple Vision Pro announced last week, I highly recommend you check out the announcement. Similar in appearance to ski goggles, the Vision Pro is a stand-alone mixed reality device that allows users to run applications, mirror their Mac, and share 3-D experiences in a lightweight form factor.
At first glance, the product appears to check many boxes, and the early reviews from folks who had the chance to demo it are positive.
To be clear, Apple is not positioning this as a traditional VR device and didn’t even mention virtual reality at the announcement. They didn’t show VR games or discuss the traditional use cases around VR, like gaming, exercise, and social platforms.
Instead, they showed people at home watching movies, in the office communicating, and interacting with apps just as you would on an iPad. This is a well-thought-out device—the hand and eye-controlled interface, eye scanning authentication, and dial allowing users to adjust the amount of the real world they see through the device are all innovations that improve the overall AR/VR experience.
But the question remains: who is it for?
The Vision Pro is for Everyone, Eventually
Very simply, this device is for everyone. I know that isn’t the answer you were looking for, but it is at least partially true. Apple’s presentation showed the device utilized in various ways, from consumers watching movies at home and travelers using the device on planes to office workers collaborating on 3-D projects. The visual experience, overall quality, and ease of use make this an attractive device for consuming digital content of all types, with the addition of the three-dimensional experiences that make this technology so revolutionary.
The price is the real obstacle keeping the masses from buying the Vision Pro at launch. At $3,499, the question of who it is for gets a lot more complicated.
The early adopters of the Vision Pro fall into a few camps. Note that the word “Pro” is in the name, signaling that Apple knows this isn’t meant to be a mass consumer device, and a future consumer-priced device is likely on the roadmap. So, who will fork over $3,499 for this?
While the iPhone was a success early on, it became what it is today thanks to the health of the developer community and the App Store. For Apple to build a new market in the AR/VR space, they will need to do the same. You need apps to sell a mass consumer device, but the development community needs a device to build apps for. I think this is the most important sector to watch – if the developers buy into this hardware, the apps will start coming, and Apple will have more success when they are ready to launch a more consumer-priced version.
AR/VR enthusiasts, especially ones already in the Apple ecosystem, will take a serious look at the Vision Pro. As a frequent traveler, I would love to have one on planes, where I could have large screens in my view for both work and play. I’ve mostly stopped working on planes due to the cramped seating and lack of privacy. Additionally, being able to transport myself from a claustrophobic plane to an open, beautiful setting to watch a movie on a giant screen would make plane travel so much more enjoyable.
AR/VR Business Use
Apple didn’t spend much time discussing business use other than collaboration and Office docs, but the traditional AR/VR use cases should drive adoption of the Vision Pro. If the passthrough camera technology is as good as they made it out to be, the Vision Pro could be a serious AR device in a market that has been floundering for some time. While true AR devices like the Hololens, Magic Leap, and Think Reality have been around for some time, AR growth has been slowed by their limitations. The Vision Pro could make a huge splash in this space as developers get to work on apps.
Looking Ahead, Looking Back
So, was this the “iPhone moment” for AR/VR?
My guess is this will be more of a journey than a moment, but I do think we will look back on June 5, 2023 as the date when things began to take off. But for now, all we can do is wait. The device is still six months or more away from being released, which gives me just enough time to start saving.