If you think Apple is fumbling its AR/VR headset, you don't know Apple like I do

Apple AR/VR headset mockup
(Image credit: Future)

None of this makes sense. Apple builds elegant technology for the masses. It fixes whatever ails previous iterations of the thing, shows us all how it's done, and proceeds to dominate the market. That's the formula for everything from the iPod (RIP) to the AirPods. The rumored Apple AR/VR headset project, however, is apparently marching to the beat of a different drummer.

Every new report I read about the project depicts it as being in turmoil. The New York Times points to "rare dissent" among Apple's ranks regarding the supposed $3,000 / $2,200 / AU$4,400 headset. There are, it's being suggested in various reports, concerns about the price, the technology, and the market.

On price, I still can't believe that Apple would ever come to market with a $3,000 / $2,200 / AU$4,400 piece of hardware that only a rarified few could afford to touch. That's not how Apple has traditionally built a market. Granted, Apple doesn't make cheap or always affordable products, but they're usually somewhere within market range.

Apple does target enterprise with some of its products, though those offerings usually spring out of a consumer range of products. Would there be a Mac Pro without the iMac or Macbook Air?

I'm equally surprised to hear leakers claim that not only will the headset not fit over glasses, but that Apple possibly plans on selling optional subscription lenses for the dual 4K displays. That sounds awkward, and very un-Apple-like. It would also be a case of Apple not learning from those who came before them. Proper eye calibration and clarity, with or without glasses, are a hallmark of VR quality. Anything less would be a disaster. Surely, Apple will include lens adjustments with whatever it finally builds.

Stories have made much of the departure of not only former Chief Design Officer Jony Ive (it's been four years) but his successor Evans Hankey. The people leading the Apple industrial design team are important, but design does not become neglected without them. I'm sure Apple has a deep bench here, and headset design is not one of its biggest problems (battery life, and integrating the best technology that outdoes rivals, surely are).

The important of doing AR right

That's the thing about all these stories. They're describing an Apple I don't recognize, run by a CEO who, if any of these reports are right, is running this product development by fiat.

There's no doubt that Apple CEO Tim Cook is deeply committed to augmented reality. Over the years he's repeatedly expressed interest in and support for the nascent technology, even if he's rarely backed that up with specifics.

During a 2018 earnings call, for instance, Cook said, "I see AR as being profound." Then, as is still the case now, the way Apple delivered an AR experience was through its device screens (the iPhone 14 and iPad Air, for instance).

A few years later, Cook said AR is "critically important for Apple's future." In these musings, though, Cook has rarely mentioned virtual reality, let alone the Metaverse, in similarly glowing terms.

The Apple headset, as described in The New York Times, and elsewhere, will split the difference by letting you dial your reality in and out. In other words, it's theoretically a mixed reality system, with Apple just as happy to have you immerse yourself in a new, maybe Apple TV Plus-delivered, movie or TV show, or connect the virtual world with your real one in some useful way (maybe an Apple Maps overlay).

This all sounds kind of exciting, but if the potential experiences described are only for businesses, or those rich enough to afford Apple's fabled first mixed reality offering, this will be nothing like the Apple product launches we've witnessed for over two decades.

My problem with this whole narrative, though, is that it doesn't ring quite true.

I believe there may be spirited discussion going on about the new product or products, but the kind of disarray being described in some reports is anathema to Apple, and to Tim Cook.

He's not Steve Jobs

When Cook took over Apple more than a decade ago, many worried that he wasn't enough like co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs, who died in 2011. They were right – Cook was and is different. He's not so much a maverick as he is a tactician. Cook is far less likely to, as Jobs reportedly did during his tenure, make last-minute and significant changes to products.

Cook would be more likely to redirect a project's cruise to port when he sees a supply chain and inventory or delivery issue.

With each leak, I grow more certain that Apple is not nearly as close as people think to delivering an AR/VR headset or glasses.

When Cook takes the stage at Apple's World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) in June, he will talk about the next major Reality Kit update, and how it relates to upcoming hardware opportunities. We may even see a prototype (or two); but price, customers, and delivery will be left out.

Instead, Apple and Cook may use the reaction and developer response to calibrate and finalize its hardware plans. There's zero chance that the company launches a finished product this summer, but the clock will start ticking on Apple AR/VR headsets come June.

Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.