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Apple's $3,500 headset offers VR at a premium

Apple devices have always commanded a premium, but will consumers and business splash out $3,499 on its new Vision Pro headset?

To tie in with its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple has announced Vision Pro, a $3,499 virtual and augmented reality headset.

Unveiling the new device, Apple CEO Tim Cook said: “Today marks the beginning of a new era for computing. Just as the Mac introduced us to personal computing and iPhone introduced us to mobile computing, Apple Vision Pro introduces us to spatial computing.”

He claimed the technology in Apple’s headset was “years ahead and unlike anything created before”, adding that the new device unlocks new experiences for users and exciting new opportunities for Apple developers.

Powered by Apple’s M1 processor and a new vision processor, R1, the headset has 12 cameras, five sensors and six microphones, plus spatial audio and a 23 megapixel display spread across the two display screens in the headset.

The hardware is powered by a new operating system, visionOS, which features a three-dimensional interface that Apple said has been designed to make digital content look and feel present in a user’s physical world. It also responds dynamically to natural light and casting shadows, with Apple saying that visionOS helps the user to understand scale and distance.

To enable user navigation and interaction with spatial content, Apple Vision Pro has also introduced a new input system controlled by a person’s eyes, hands and voice. Users are able to browse through apps by looking at them, tapping their fingers to select, flicking their wrist to scroll, or using voice to dictate.

Discussing the new headset, Leo Gebbie, principal analyst of connected devices at CCS Insight, said: “Even though it won’t launch until early 2024, we expect that the Vision Pro will transform the spatial computing segment, thanks to some of Apple’s design decisions and its innovative visionOS.

“Virtual and augmented reality have been through a period of intense scrutiny and scepticism in recent times, but if one company has the star power to revive the segment, it’s Apple.”

CCS Insight has forecast that sales of extended reality devices will reach 9.8 million units in 2023, up 6% from 2022 despite the weak start to 2023.

According to Gebbie, among the big benefits of the headset is that it enables developers to provide a layer of additional spatial capability without removing backwards compatibility. This, he said, means that visionOS will have a wealth of apps straight out of the box, directly ported from other Apple operating systems. One example is the iPad version of Adobe Lightroom, which will work on the Vision Pro with no changes. “This should help to ensure that Vision Pro is multifunctional and useful from day one,” Gebbie added.

However, Forrester principal analyst Thomas Husson questioned its impact given the high price, saying : “It is likely the new computer will remain niche for quite some time given its high price point. The disruptive effects of the mixed-reality headsets and spatial computing will only be seen in the next couple of years.

“That said, if developers and brands manage to create breakthrough experiences on this new device and Apple successfully sells between 500,000 and one million devices in year one, that would already represent a significant revenue uplift between $1.5bn and $3.5bn.”

Apple’s big rival in the augmented and virtual reality market is likely to be Facebook’s parent company Meta, which recently launched the $499 Quest 3 headset, which is significantly cheaper than the Vision Pro. CCS Insight’s Gebbie said the two are aimed at two types of buyer.

“We expect this could lead to the creation of a dynamic much like the smartphone industry, where Apple dominates at the premium end of the market and Android is the leader at lower price points,” he said.

“However, Apple will still need to launch a more accessible device in time, as an ultra-premium device is likely to remain a tough sell at a time when consumer budgets are squeezed.”

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