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.
The company reportedly has multiple headset prototypes on the go, focused not only on augmented reality but virtual reality too.
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 an 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 end game for Apple is expected to be a fully-fledged pair of augmented reality glasses which we’ve covered separately, though online whispers say the true AR glasses have been shelved indefinitely in favour of a cheaper AR/VR headset.
The solution, according to various sources, could be an AR/VR hybrid headset similar to the Meta 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.
What will the AR/VR headset be called?
While the majority of rumours about Apple’s upcoming hybrid headset have referenced it by its function – an AR/VR headset – a recent batch of trademark applications suggests Apple could’ve finally decided on a name.
As first spotted by Bloomberg reporter Mark Gurman, a swathe of trademark applications have been filed in a number of countries including the US, UK, EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Costa Rica and Uruguay, all with the theme of ‘Reality’. Applications include references to Reality One, Reality Pro and Reality Processor. Gurman himself has taken to calling the headset Reality Pro, which suggests this may be the most likely name.
Of course, this is yet to be confirmed – Apple itself isn’t directly associated with the trademark filings – but it’s not unusual for the tech giant to use law firms and shell corporations to cover some of the pre-launch work that has to be done.
When will the Apple AR/VR headset be released?
Apple’s headset was probably meant to be out by now, but has been delayed a few times. Bloomberg suggests that while Apple had originally planned to announce the headset at WWDC 2022, “development challenges related to overheating, cameras and software have made it harder to stay on track”.
According to a DigiTimes report, the headset was allegedly in the manufacturing validation process as of November 2022, with mass production scheduled for March 2023. The publication also speculates that an announcement could follow a month later in April, though with a very limited run of headsets initially available.
Gurman has since reported for Bloomberg that it will appear at WWDC 2023, which would likely be in June, after Apple scrapped plans for a dedicated headset launch event in April this year.
Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo predicted similar, that Apple will announce the AR/VR headset either in spring or at WWDC 2023, though hasn’t yet followed Gurman in reporting that the spring event has been nixed. Either way, Kuo claims that the mass shipments of the headset aren’t due to begin until the end of 2Q23 or the start of 3Q23 – i.e. June or July.
Reports also suggest that Apple has ramped up the development of realityOS, the software that’ll run on the headset. That was backed up by a separate discovery of a realityOS trademark in early June 2022, which falls under the categories of peripherals, software and wearable computer hardware.
With all that said, a reveal and subsequent release of Apple’s AR/VR headset some time in early 2023 sounds most likely, but we’ll update this if we hear differently.
How much will the Apple AR/VR headset cost?
When it comes to Apple’s initial AR/VR offering, 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.
Bloomberg suggests that the headset is expected to be much more expensive than existing standalone VR headsets, which currently range from the £399/$399 Meta Quest 2 to the likes of the more advanced $1,499/£1,499 Meta Quest Pro, 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 a huge report from The Information suggests it could be as much as an eye-watering $3,000. The publication reaffirmed that rumoured price in a subsequent report in January 2023, suggesting that it very much could be a top-end headset.
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”.
The saving grace is that Apple could be working on a much cheaper headset for release sometime in 2024. Per The Information, Apple allegedly wants to release a more affordable headset, though ‘affordable’ in Apple’s eyes is a price similar to that of the Meta Quest Pro. It’s said to achieve this aim by using lower-tier components than the top-end headset due out this year, with a lower resolution display, less processing power, and maybe even the omission of the H2 low-latency audio chipset.
Bloomberg has also chimed in on the matter, also suggesting Apple is now planning to release two AR/VR headsets, with a cheaper model due in 2024.
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 and a later article from January 2023.
In terms of general design, the headset is said to look similar to the Meta 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.
“The product will have a curved screen on the front that can outwardly show a wearer’s eyes, with speakers on the sides and a headband that helps fit the device around a user’s head,” Gurman explains. “That will differ from the mostly plastic design of rival products, which typically strap the device to the wearer with multiple bands.”
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 it’s reported that 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.
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 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.
However, a January 2023 report from The Information seems to suggest that things haven’t gone to plan, with Apple allegedly ditching the controller to go all-in with hand tracking and voice commands.
The January 2023 report sheds much more light on the design too; The Information’s sources suggest that while Apple had originally built the battery into the headset itself, it has since switched to a waist-worn battery pack. This should make the headset much lighter and easier to use over longer periods, though with a cable extending from the headset to your waist.
Gurman agrees, adding that the external battery pack will be “roughly the size of two iPhone 14 Pro Maxes stacked on top of each other.” He does add that Apple tested prototypes with an internal battery, but it seems this external solution won out over cooling concerns for the headset.
The headset is said to be built from aluminium, glass, and carbon fibre to help further reduce size and weight, with cameras concealed within the ski goggle-esque design for a cleaner aesthetic. That’ll be flanked by an Apple Watch-like digital crown on the side of the headset to allow users to quickly transition between the virtual and real worlds, and there are potentially going to be different headbands for different use cases too.
What’s most interesting is the mention of a unique outward-facing display on the front of the headset, designed to show the facial expressions of the headset wearer to people around them in the real world. This should allegedly reduce the sense of isolation users can feel when using the headset in a room with others. The report claims that the display features an ultra-low refresh rate and reduced power consumption similar to that of the always-on display tech on the iPhone 14 Pro.
It’s certainly an interesting addition that we haven’t seen from any VR headsets up until now, but it’s worth taking with the usual grain of salt at this stage.
Per Bloomberg, the headset allegedly features an Apple-designed chip that’s a variant of the M2 chip found in the latest Macs, 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.
In fact the headset will pack two chipsets, with the M2 joined by a less powerful dedicated ‘Reality’ chipset to handle sensor operations and some image processing.
A January 2023 report from The Information adds more detail, with The Information’s sources believing that the main chipset will include a CPU, GPU, and memory, while the second is a dedicated image signal processor. Both are said to be fabricated on a 5nm process, missing out on the rumoured advancements expected to come with the 3nm A17 chipset rumoured for release later this year.
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 chipset is also said to use a custom streaming codec that Apple was forced to develop after discovering unacceptable latency issues during product development. The headset also includes a H2 chip for an ultra-low latency connection with the second-gen AirPods Pro, but Gurman reports that while the headset supports Spatial Audio this is only with compatible AirPods connected, not using the built-in speakers.
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. Gurman more specifically predicts it will be able to run for about two hours on a single charge.
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 at one point suggested 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. The Information later agreed that two 8K displays aren’t likely, pointing instead to the use of two 4K Micro OLED panels as Kuo suggested.
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.
The Information published a newer report in January 2023 that claims that the headset will offer a 120-degree field of view, the same as the Valve Index and much more than the 106-degree FOV of the high-end Meta Quest Pro. It’s also said to have small motors to automatically adjust its internal lenses to match the wearer’s inter-pupillary distance, which is no doubt handy, but it’s not the first – the feature is already used in the Meta Quest Pro.
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.
In a follow-up report in October 2022, The Information goes a little further on the eye-tracking tech, suggesting that it’ll also be capable of scanning your iris. The idea behind this is essentially easy account switching, with users able to put the headset on and automatically be logged into their account, though the report also suggests it’ll be used for payment authentication much like Touch and Face ID.
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”. A follow-up report claims that two of these cameras will be dedicated to leg tracking to better emulate the positions of your legs via virtual avatars. Meta is looking into leg tracking for its avatar system, which is currently essentially floating torsos, heads and arms with no legs, though it’s not available on the Quest 2 or more recent Quest Pro.
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 Meta’s latest standalone headsets. 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 colleagues.
Not much else was said on that front until 2022, when iOS developers started noticing references to a new operating system called ‘realityOS’. It had been spotted in various places, including Apple’s own open-source 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.
However, more recent reports from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman suggest Apple might’ve shelved the realityOS branding, instead opting for the more sleek xrOS.
As for what that experience will be like, Gurman adds that the headset will be able to serve as an external monitor for your Mac and could have “a dedicated video-watching feature that can make viewers feel like they’re seeing a movie on a giant screen in another environment, such as a desert or outer space.”
He also says the interface will be “nearly identical to that of the iPhone and iPad, featuring a home screen with a grid of icons that can be reorganized.”