For years, leaks have pointed to Apple working on cross-reality products. While the company sees AR as having the brighter future, "Apple VR" may come first as a niche product. An expensive mixed-reality headset could serve as a training ground for Apple as it moves towards its big bet on AR glasses.
● Standalone headset
● Mixed reality: VR and AR
● Chip more powerful than M1
● Built-in cooling
● Prescription inserts or malleable lenses
● Could cost as much as $3,000
● Image credit: Antonio De Rosa
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"Apple VR" is the company's rumored virtual reality headset. Most leaks relating to Apple's headset plans have pointed to a pair of augmented reality glasses, informally dubbed "Apple Glass." However, several reports have hinted at a premium VR or mixed-reality headset arriving first.
Apart from scattered patent filings, which don't often make their way into finished products, we've only recently seen leaks about "Apple VR." The bulk of the product's leaks so far have come in early 2021, with multiple reports and analysts pointing to an expensive headset with cutting-edge technology arriving in 2022.
"Apple VR" vs. "Apple Glass"
Apple CEO Tim Cook has said he believes augmented reality (AR) has more long-term potential than virtual reality (VR). However, since today's VR technology is more mature and easier to produce, a premium "Apple VR" or MR headset could give developers and Apple's designers a warmup run for "Apple Glass."
VR cuts the user off from their environment, fully immersing them in a virtual world. Meanwhile, AR overlays virtual objects, UIs, and characters on top of the user's real-world environment. Mixed reality (MR) can refer to a headset that incorporates elements of both. All of these technologies use two lenses that combine two slightly different images to achieve a stereoscopic 3D illusion.
Apple's rumored approach would be much more advanced than early AR beta products like Google Glass. Google's head-worn device showed flat UI elements seen only in the corner of one lens. Its interface was much closer to that of a smartwatch than to VR.
Like Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap 1, modern AR can create the illusion of video-game characters leaping across your room or a virtual table sitting on your living-room floor. Today's premium AR headsets sense your environment and place 3D graphical elements accordingly. This is what Apple will ultimately aim for with its AR glasses, though in a smaller form factor.
Form factor further compounds the complexity of AR glasses. In shutting you off from your environment, a VR headset can be a relatively bulky visor – more like scuba goggles than eyeglasses. The ideal AR headset would be something you can wear all day, appearing more like a pair of prescription glasses. "Apple Glass" would require much greater degrees of miniaturization and efficiency.
Apple's VR or MR headset reportedly has the codename N301. The company hasn't finalized its plans and could still scrap them before reaching consumers. Meanwhile, the more consumer-friendly AR glasses are codenamed N421 and could be years away from launching – 2023 or later.
"Apple VR" Features
Compared to AR glasses, "Apple VR" would be heavier and look more like existing VR headsets. It would be about the size of Facebook's Oculus Quest 2, though with a curved visor on its front.
Like Facebook's headset, "Apple VR" would be a standalone product with a built-in battery. Unlike PlayStation VR or Valve Index, you wouldn't need to connect it to a gaming PC, console, or another external processing source.
Late-stage prototypes and concept images of the device show a curved visor that attaches to the face with a mesh material and swappable headbands. Early renders show a simple headset design with bands similar to Apple Watch and mech akin to the AirPods Max.
The headset would be enclosed, allowing for full VR experiences isolated from the real world. However, it would also support AR, passing through a view of the real world – possibly through cameras. This contrasts with "Apple Glass," which would show your real environment continually through transparent lenses.
The headset will reportedly have a fabric exterior. While Apple typically uses metal casings for its products, the fabric would help keep the headset's weight down. It may also support swappable headbands, and Apple is allegedly prototyping one headband with a built-in battery.
Processor and Display
According to leaks, Apple has tested chips for its VR headset that outperform the M1 processors found in the latest Macs.
"Apple VR" will also have a much higher-resolution display than those found in existing VR products. Among current consumer headsets, the HP Reverb has the highest resolution. It offers 2160 x 2160 for each eye, totaling 4320 x 2160 combined resolution.
The Apple headset will reportedly use ultra-high-resolution 8K displays. Such a pixel-dense screen would produce an ultra-sharp image without any "screen door effect," the term used for early VR headsets' tendency to display visible pixels. An 8K display would also allow for more realistic environments, increasing the user's overall feeling of presence.
Powering an 8K display would be a significant task for even Apple's best in-house chips. The company is allegedly approaching that by incorporating foveated rendering. This technology tracks the user's eyes, only prioritizing graphical detail in the section the user is looking at. Portions of the virtual image in the user's peripheral vision have downgraded quality.
Foveated rendering requires ultra-precise eye-tracking that hasn't yet made it into mass-market VR headsets. However, once companies nail down the technology, foveated rendering will present high-fidelity graphics more efficiently, without any noticeable drop in visual detail.
A 2020 report suggested Sony would be supplying OLED panels for Apple's VR or AR initiatives.
Cameras and Hand-tracking
Apple's headset prototypes include outward-facing cameras that could enable some AR features and support hand tracking.
Today's VR headsets primarily rely on motion controls. Somewhat similar to Wii remotes, they include motion sensors that track the user's hand movement and, in the case of the Valve Index, finger movement. While wearing the headset, users will typically see virtual hands that move in real-time along with the remotes.
In addition to hand- and eye-tracking, Apple is also developing other control mechanisms. One possible method would be a thimble-like device worn on a user's finger that could allow them to control software. It isn't clear if that accessory will be bundled with "Apple VR" or sold separately.
Multiple reports have suggested Apple will use LiDar in its MR headset. The technology, which Apple has used in the 2020 iPad Pro and iPhone 12 series, dramatically improves environmental mapping for AR experiences. It can place virtual objects in a real-world environment more accurately, and it may be able to enhance hand-tracking as well.
Ming-Chi Kuo says that the Apple VR headset will feature 15 cameras for tracking and biometrics. Eight would be used for passthrough images so the wearer could see the world while wearing the helmet. Six would be used for biometrics, however, what this means is unclear. The final camera would be used for environmental detection.
Apple is also planning on building a fan into its headset. The company typically avoids fans in its mobile devices, but a proper cooling system is essential in today's standalone VR. Without cooling to dissipate heat, even today's most efficient mobile processors would risk overheating under high-end VR's demands.
To power each lens' view, a VR system needs to process two simultaneous graphical feeds, each from a slightly different angle. Each lens' video is graphically demanding and continually shifting in response to the user's head movement. The graphics also need to have high resolutions and support a bare minimum of 60 frames per second.
The standalone headset would also include a built-in battery, sparking further heating concerns. A fan would be essential to maintain safe operating temperatures under these demanding conditions.
To reduce the headset's size, Apple reportedly removed the space in front of the lenses that VR devices typically reserved for users who wear eyeglasses. However, removing that space would require an alternative solution for people with corrective lenses.
Supposedly, Apple plans on allowing customers to order custom prescription lenses. They could insert these into the headset over the VR displays.
Selling prescription lenses would require Apple to work within regional government regulations. The company hasn't yet decided how to approach perceptions during online or retail sales.
While patents don't always predict a final product, Apple filed one that would use fluid and pressure to adjust the user's prescription on the fly. However, it isn't clear whether Apple would use this patent for VR, AR, both, or neither.
"Apple VR" Price and Release Date
Apple is planning on pricing its headset "above the $300 to $900 of its rivals," and possibly as high as $3,000. The only current mass-market standalone VR headset is the $299-and-up Oculus Quest 2. Apple's device would use much higher-quality components while prioritizing user privacy.
Apple views its initial VR or MR product as a niche project that will sell in low volume, similar to the Mac Pro. On average, Apple expects it to sell one headset per day for each Apple Store. Its less-mainstream nature allows Apple to pave the road for its future AR glasses. Many of the underlying technologies and software content could carry over to the smaller and more consumer-friendly form factor.
As Apple hasn't yet finalized its plans, we don't yet know the "Apple VR" release date. It could reportedly launch as early as 2022, with "Apple Glass" following in 2023 or later.