And how enterprise will make it happen.
Apple’s new headset is a massive step forward for the AR industry. As Apple has done with the iPhone and Apple Watch, the company has revolutionized how we interact with our world digitally.
Why very few companies are positioned to make augmented reality devices ubiquitous
Augmented reality (AR) has been challenging for hardware companies to build well, because the technical challenges of producing a device require sophisticated vertical integration techniques. To build a great experience, you need tight integration of the cameras, silicon, memory, displays, form factor and UX. Alongside Microsoft and Google, Apple is one of the only companies with the degree of vertical integration capable of producing such a complex device as an AR headset.
However, Apple stands apart in one respect — a laser focus on user experience. AR glasses require a plethora of new technologies to work, but technology is useless unless it’s usable by humans. Apple’s complete vertical integration across these many complex (and ground-breaking) technologies, combined with its ability to use these technologies to focus on the user experience, is what will finally bring AR into the mainstream.
While Qualcomm is trying to do something similar for the AR ecosystem to what Android did for smartphones, they have vertical integration for most of the stack — but not all of it. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Spaces platform vertically integrates the silicon, memory and displays, but they’re relying on their OEMs for the form factor and fighting with Android’s capabilities on the UX. A similar dynamic played out years ago with Google: At first, Google allowed OEMs to produce their hardware but quickly realized that in order to adequately compete with Apple, they needed to vertically integrate to produce the Pixel, and it wasn’t until many years after Android launched that its user experience finally caught up to the iPhone.
What sets the Vision Pro apart
But let’s get back to the Apple Vision Pro. I’m cautiously optimistic that this is the device we’ve been waiting for. The early reviews indicate that the passthrough AR is almost seamless, and with 23 million pixels and 12 milliseconds latency, that certainly seems plausible. I’m also optimistic they’ve solved the UX with highly fine-tuned gestures. Previous hand gesture implementations resulted in “gorilla arm” or inaccuracy and a frustrating experience, but early reviews of Vision Pro state that it finally nails “lazy” gestures. If the combined eye tracking/hand tracking mechanism works, it will be revelatory.
Adoption depends on enterprises using augmented reality for training
Ultimately, what this platform really needs is a killer app. Is watching movies in 4K ultra HD a killer app? Probably not. Is immersive FaceTime? Probably not. But could I see myself wearing these on a plane to watch a movie or as a second screen? Yes, definitely. And although I’m not a gamer, I could see how one might be able to have an amazing gaming experience wearing the Vision Pro.
Altogether, these consumer use cases make it almost compelling for someone with enough disposable income to buy a Vision Pro. But the true value lies in the enterprise. HoloLens 1 was focused on consumers, and quickly HoloLens 2 pivoted to an enterprise play. Magic Leap, same thing. Qualcomm, same thing. Every one of these companies is attracted to the giant consumer market, and yet penetration for XR will only succeed with enterprise first.
This brings me back to the killer app. Every major newspaper has written something about Apple needing a killer app. But none of the use cases showcased in the keynote is it.
What is? Training — specifically, enterprise training.
Companies continue to struggle with skills gaps. In a survey of more than 39,000 global companies, The Manpower Group found that 77% of employers report difficulty filling roles — which is a 17-year high. And with technology shifting faster than workforces can adapt, as well as workers changing jobs too quickly to become experts, companies are short on the critical knowledge and skills that make up their DNA.
But AR technology allows companies to “create instant experts.” The ability to see something in your native environment, in 3D — to walk around it and experience it and interact with it — that is the killer app because it solves a real business problem, really well. Scope AR’s Worklink customers routinely see 50% better retention, higher job satisfaction, and a plethora of other results using this technology.
Why the cost of the Vision Pro is justified (for now)
So, why would an organization be willing to shell out $3500 for an Apple Vision Pro specifically, rather than $499 for a Meta Quest Pro?
A number of issues have so far hampered the adoption of VR: VR training has limited use cases, and it’s difficult to scale; and the uncanny valley phenomenon means that you need to replicate an environment very well to ensure the user is comfortable. Combine that with the social stigma and isolating experience, and it becomes clear why VR has experienced lackluster adoption.
But the Vision Pro has gone to great lengths to solve these issues with two-way passthrough video. The presence of the eye passthrough feature is evidence enough of this. The cost to the bill of materials for this feature is astounding — two cameras facing the eyes, the equivalent of two iPhone displays externally showing the eyes, not to mention the computing power you’re allocating to render the user’s eyes. That alone must account for $500-1000 of the price. Apple likely believed that the social stigma and isolation problem was worth that cost to address (although I predict that those features will be dropped in future versions). But if doing so overcomes the social stigma and the uncanny valley to finally hit mainstream adoption, it will be well worth the effort and expense.
Our vision: Augmented reality might finally be ready to go mainstream
So, with the combination of tepid consumer use cases and a strong focus on the device as a workforce-scale training utility, is it possible that this is finally the AR device we’ve been waiting for? If organizations can be convinced to purchase them at scale for workforce training purposes, with the benefit being that the headsets can double as a productivity device similar to a laptop, then maybe. Just maybe.