Everyone seems to be eyeing the Apple keynote on June 5th. Excitement abounds as to how great the supposed Apple Reality Pro headset will be. I think most analysts are missing the point by looking too closely. As innovative as the new product might be, its commercial success - or price, for that matter - is largely irrelevant.
Let me explain.
Looking at existing products, we inevitably have to talk about the leading Virtual Reality (VR) headset, Meta Quest 2 (Oculus Quest 2). Which to date is the best-selling consumer-grade VR experience at an affordable price point. However, it is also a product looking for a raison d'être. Facebook took a product company (Oculus) and rebranded to Meta (desperate move, but that's another topic) and, to give investors a story, presented some simple math may be along these lines: the Metaverse is all about VR, Facebook bought the leading consumer-VR product, and Facebook can force VR-users to utilize a Facebook login, meaning a large part of customers can be upsold and kept walled in a Facebook advertising Metaverse. The problem was: there never was a compelling reason to buy a Quest 2. And Facebook's Metaverse initiative Horizon Worlds never took off and likely never will.
What baffles me is how clueless Meta has been with commercializing the (at the time) fantastic product. I could easily see applications for an Oculus as a multi-screen replacement and, therefore, invaluable office equipment replacing thousands of dollars worth of monitors and cables at each desk, selling hundreds of millions of devices every year. What is still missing for this is a comprehensive new concept of interacting with data in three dimensions. Our current point-and-click interfaces need a turn to mixed mode (visual, gestures, voice recognition etc.) to be truly natural and immersive. Gestures alone seem incomplete. Speech alone is error-prone. A product alone doesn't make a good strategy, and with Meta the absence of a long-term strategy has become painfully obvious. I would not be surprised to see Meta dabble a little longer not to lose face and, in 2-3 years, focus entirely on the enterprise customers to cut costs or sell Oculus off to generate some cash for the next pivot.
As I wrote last year as a follow-up to WWDC 2022, to me, Apple is well on track with their long-term strategy for the next iteration of the Web. They just do not call it out, but if you connect the dots, I think the picture is clear.
I would argue that their hypothesis is that immersion will still be rooted in the physical, real world. Therefore they will likely focus more on Mixed Reality (MR) and Augmented Reality (AR) as a first step before going for Virtual Reality (VR).
Quantifying self. Every smartphone is a sensor tracking our every movement. Face ID combines a camera and infrared images for accurate detection of faces and sentiment. Apple watch (spoiler: it's not actually a watch) is a health sensor to measure sleep, aFib, and more. With every generation of devices, the picture of the bearer becomes clearer, more detailed, and more valuable.
Natural language processing. Siri might be subpar as a voice assistant. But the fact remains that Apple probably has the world's 2nd largest network of voice recognition devices. That training data enables Apple to fine-tune and interpret speech to comprehend commands and situations.
Quantifying the world. Apple's iPhone camera and image recognition are among the very best. But beyond just capable cameras, ever since the iPhone 12 Pro, powerful LiDAR sensors have been added to capture 3D environments (Google and Samsung were first but have dropped LiDAR in the meantime). Apple is building out this capability. AI and digital twins will become more important in the future (the other leading software company in AI and LiDAR is... Tesla).
Digital transactions. Apple Pay (including pay later options) shows that Apple is taking payment beyond just replacing credit cards. As money is information, this move could prove vital not just for Apple to enable transactions but for Apple to become a major gateway. As societies move more and more toward digital (more IoT, digital wallets, digital goods, even cars being connected), gateways will not succeed by being "one out of several options" during e-commerce checkout but by being the default gateway on key devices like smartphones, or in cars. Apple is taking payment to the entire 24h of life while payment companies focus on "moments of few, selected transactions".
Real-time computing. Apple's silicon is likely the most powerful in the world per watt-hour. Which allows them to process more data more efficiently and in real time. What is paying dividends with the iPhones and iPads, has been extended to the Macbook range. Controlling hardware and OS with powerful and energy-efficient silicon will allow for more data processing, faster response times, more AI, longer stamina and a better user experience. Software companies building upon 3rd party hardware and software will face several obstacles if they wish to re-create the smoothness required for a true, immersive feeling of MR and AR.
Mixed mode. Continuity and seamless handover between experiences will be required in MR, AR and VR. Voice, gesture and traditional input methods will have to work hand-in-hand. With iOS 16, Apple laid the groundwork for this. Apple was always willing to pioneer new user interfaces, even if not always successful. Apple Lisa was a failure, but their mouse concept caught on with the Macintosh. Likewise, the touchscreen couldn't save the failed Apple Newton but was crucial to the success of the iPhone. Apple certainly understands user-centric interfaces, and I bet this is what we will see from them: new ways of interaction design. While I am indifferent about what Apple's first generation headset "product" can do, I am excited to see their hypothesis of how to design for the next generation of the internet. That is the revolution I am looking forward to seeing. Perhaps already in a couple of days, perhaps in the coming months. But I do bet on Apple leading the way toward the digital future.
June 2023, Mark Forster. Written on a Windows 11 laptop and sketched on a Google Pixel 7 Pro 😉.