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Apple's AR & VR headset will launch into a poorly defined market

A render of a potential Apple headset

Rumors surrounding Apple's virtual reality efforts and a 2023 launch continue to swirl as other companies showed off new and uninspiring devices at the Consumer Electronics Show.

The VR space at CES 2023 was not particularly abuzz this year, although it still had plenty of movement and wild ideas. However, nothing was volatile enough to create waves throughout the broader tech space.

The closest thing to a ground swell came from HTC with its new Vive XR Elite mixed reality headset. It's a device capable of both augmented and virtual reality.

Beyond that, the offerings from the electronics show were either distant dreams or a bit lackluster.

Still, since Apple's headset appears only to be a few months away from public view, a look at the wider VR landscape can provide an overall inventory of where the so-called metaverse stands.

Closer look at HTC Vive XR Elite

As a quick overview, the Vive XR Elite is a stand-alone unit, not requiring any tethering via wires, and will cost $1,099. It uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 chip and has 12GB of ram.

Vive XR Elite
Vive XR Elite

On the visuals front, it will have an internal display providing 2K pixels per eye, a 90Hz refresh rate, and a 110-degree field of view. Additional accessories can give it the ability to track eyes or full face tracking.

With its 2-hour battery attached to the back for VR mode, the Vive XR Elite weighs 625 grams. Plugged into a power source for a more stationary AR mode, the unit weighs 240 grams.

While this product is more advanced than the HTC Vive Flow, it looks like it borrowed a lot of ideas from that sister device.

We've gone hands-on with the Vive Flow in the past, and while it showed an evolution in VR hardware, it was still significantly compromised and didn't seem ready for a mainstream audience. We're getting some of those vibes from the Vive XR Elite too.

The Vive Flow hardware when we tried it in 2022 wasn't overly comfortable and was less immersive than the Meta Quest 2. The software side was also lacking in comparison.

Vive Flow
Vive Flow

Still, we like the idea of a hot-swappable battery residing on the back to provide a counterweight. This aspect of the Vive XR Elite seems most plausible for Apple's unit if either has any overlapping features.

Apple's VR headset has long been rumored to stay under 400 grams. Reports have suggested it could even weigh in the range of 200 grams which would be well under the Vive XR Elite's full weight. For comparison, the first-generation AirPods Max weigh 134.5 grams.

Other recent Apple headset rumors still indicate that Apple intends to use high-end hardware such as a Sony-produced micro OLED screen with 4K resolution per eye and a 120-degree field of view.

Render of potential Apple headset
Render of potential Apple headset

The trade-off between HTC's latest announced VR offering and Apple's increasingly imminent product will be price. Apple's device is expected to be very expensive.

Apple could always pull a surprise (like the iPad debuting at $499), but at minimum, its VR unit will likely be several hundred dollars more than the Vive XR Elite, at least.

The metaverse

It's possible Meta has already overused and spoiled the word "metaverse," but plenty of companies still want to describe their virtual experiences as such.

People going hands-on with products at CES generally seemed impressed with the immersive display Brelyon Fusion as a different way to join the metaverse.

Brelyon Fusion
Brelyon Fusion

Instead of strapping on a VR headset to your face, Brelyon's solution is more akin to a desktop computer monitor that wraps around your field of view.

TCL showed off its NXTWear V headset, despite it not having a shipping date or even a concrete availability time frame. The company also showed its RayNeo X2 AR glasses, which should be available to developers in the coming months before hopefully reaching consumers.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that Apple was evaluating the metaverse and will invest in it accordingly. Though more recently Apple VP Greg Joswiak called out the word "metaverse" as a word he'll never use, so it's unlikely that Apple itself will ever use the term publicly.

VR Accessories

Missing from the sights and sounds of current VR headsets are the smells of a new world. Aromajoin demoed its device capable of providing scents to match visuals.

More realistically, Panasonic's Shiftall showed off Haritora X Wireless which can track full body movements for its SteamVR headset. This is from the same company that designed an isolated VR microphone that looked like a muzzle.

Razor adjustable head strap system
Razor adjustable head strap system

Razer was more subdued with its VR accessory contributions. It showed off an adjustable head strap and a new facial interface, both made to be attached to the Meta Quest 2.

It's highly unlikely Apple will debut its headset with odors or even leg tracking. But there is a good chance that companies will work to build some of these accessories and surrounding products for it once they know what Apple is going to ship.

Apple headset outlook

Looking back at several years of Apple headset rumors, there is one constant: it will be a costly, premium product.

Apple's hardware is always at the high end of a market category, but we would argue that it's usually still a good value. An M2 MacBook Air is a great example of a product with a high price, but a great value thanks to its fantastic performance and long battery life.

Potential Apple headset render
Potential Apple headset render

We're waiting to see if the Apple headset will be closer in value to a MacBook Air or to AirPods Max, which, although great, are vastly more expensive than the competition with little extra benefit.

Now that CES 2023 has come and gone, it is fascinating that more companies didn't try to debut new ultra-premium headsets that cost more than $2,000.

In the past, whenever Apple is rumored to be releasing a new product, typically, lots of companies will try to jump ahead and at least announce products at CES. We're surprised we didn't see much of that this year.

That indicates to us that the VR market is still burgeoning, and Apple hasn't missed any potential boom. But it could also mean that there's still little demand for VR products, and Apple has a lot of work ahead of it to light the market on fire.