How Apple’s Vision Pro could save its VR competitors | Opinion

How Apple’s Vision Pro could save its VR competitors

The company is rarely first to market, but when it does launch, it lays the groundwork for rivals to ride on its coattails.

| Updated on: Jun 12 2023, 15:41 IST
Vision Pro headset in Photos: Apple’s first spatial computer
Apple Vision Pro
1/6 The Apple Vision Pro headset is constructed using lightweight materials and an aluminum frame with polished laminated glass at the front. For controls, there are buttons for capturing video and photos, with the inclusion of a digital crown. (Apple)
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2/6 Apple says that there are 23 million micro-OLED pixels across displays in the Vision Pro, meaning there are more pixels in a postage stamp-sized area than what you can get on a 4K TV! It also houses 5 sensors and 12 cameras.  (Apple)
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3/6 What’s under the hood? Powering all this tech is a fan-cooled computer with an M2 chip and a new R1 chip, running on VisionOS. It has an external battery that lasts up to two hours and can connect via a woven cable that you can easily put in your pockets. (Apple)
Apple Vision Pro
4/6 Apple Vision Pro seamlessly blends the digital world with the real world, says Apple CEO Tim Cook. Instead of a physical controller, you control it with your hands, voice, and eyes! The EyeSight feature lets others see your eyes when they are near you. You can also use a digital crown on the side of the headset to determine how immersive the environment is. (Apple)
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5/6 Wondering how people with glasses will wear the headset? Don’t worry, Apple has a plan for that too. The Cupertino-based tech giant has collaborated with Zeiss to bring custom prescription glass inserts for the Vision Pro headset. Vision Pro can also become your personal movie theater by dimming your surrounding environment, letting you focus on the film with Spatial Audio support. (Apple)
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6/6 With all this advanced tech, how much does the Vision Pro cost? Apple Vision Pro starts at $3499 and will be available for purchase starting early next year in the US, followed by a rollout in other countries at a later date. (Apple)
Apple Vision Pro
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The Apple Vision Pro headset is displayed in a showroom on the Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif. (AP)

Apple Inc.'s Vision Pro headset is an overpriced laggard with no proven market and a decade of history to show why it should fail. Which is precisely the reason its entry into the virtual-reality sector could ignite a boom among rivals fighting to improve their own devices using cheaper components and new technologies.

It's rare that Apple is first to market on anything. We know it wasn't the premier laptop maker, was late to the MP3 business, and certainly didn't invent the smartphone. Yet in each case, the Cupertino-based company brought out what it envisioned was the best version of a device, one that focused heavily on user experience and needs.

A key feature of its new-product strategy is to not get trapped by technological barriers, and instead plow ahead confident in the belief they can be overcome. And if not, Apple leaders have rarely been shy to pull a product or re-engineer to ensure the user experience remains the top priority.

One famous example is Steve Jobs's dissatisfaction with the iPhone screen mere months before launch. It was originally to be made of plastic, but a few weeks with a demo device in his pocket jangling with a set of keys revealed how easy it was to scratch. He got to work rebuilding the device around a glass panel instead.

When the company suddenly switched materials its suppliers were crucial to solving the problem. Apple doesn't assemble its own products, but it does work very closely with vendors to create new chemicals, develop innovative technologies and engineer production processes. This approach means Apple has historically blazed a path forward in hardware and materials that allowed the rest of the sector to ride its coattails. It's common for suppliers to quietly tout their famous client as proof of technical prowess.

Two other case studies show just how influential the US company is in clearing the way for rivals to enjoy easy access to world-changing technology.

Apple's Powerbook G4, released 20 years ago, introduced a metal shell to the laptop market when most competitors were still using plastic.(1) But these new materials required a whole new approach to manufacturing. So Apple worked closely with its Taiwanese supplier to develop a laser welding technique for assembling these cases. The result was a groundbreaking approach that, while initially challenging, taught the industry a new way to envision and build laptops. Within a few years, others followed, including brands such as Google, Dell, HP and Huawei.

Not long after, the iPhone appeared on Apple's radar. From the outset, Jobs knew that he needed to do away with a keyboard — like that sported by the BlackBerry — and go with a touch interface. At the time, one of the most common techniques was to lay two thin plastic sheets close to each other, but not touching. A finger press pushed one against the other, completing a circuit and identifying the location of the touch. It was slow, unresponsive and flimsy.

But Taipei-based startup TPK Holding Co. had a better approach. It used a single layer that sensed changes in electrical current caused by a finger press. This new technology was far better than anything else available, but had not yet been perfected and as a result manufacturing capacity was still lacking.

Rivals, including HTC Corp., Nokia Oyj and Research in Motion Ltd. soon got wind of this superior solution and started using it in their own devices. Within five years, TPK's sales to non-Apple clients had climbed 10-fold and surpassed that to the iPhone maker.

We can expect a similar story to play out with with Vision Pro, which might best be called a mixed-reality device because it combines real and virtual worlds. HTC, Meta Platforms Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are among the companies that, until now, believed they had the best VR products. But Apple has put them back in their places. Some of this is because of the ecosystem that allows the new headset to play nicely with iPhones, iPads, AirPods and Macs.

But a major reason the Vision Pro is widely regarded as the best, after just a few days of its highly controlled demonstration to the world, is because Apple clearly spent a lot of time and money perfecting the underlying technology. This includes the “singular piece of three-dimensionally formed laminated glass” which acts as the lens, alongside a suite of advanced sensors, as well as the miniature high-quality micro‑OLED screens.

Apple has been working hard to develop its own displays for at least eight years and says it filed more than 5,000 patents related to the Vision Pro alone. This means that a lot of the technologies deployed in the device will be exclusive. But not all of them — many may not even be owned by the company.

Equally important for both Apple and its rivals is the $3,499 price tag that prohibits it from becoming a mass-market device, but gives a lot of room for cost shrinkage. Over time, components will get cheaper and production volume will escalate as vendors become more efficient at manufacturing. As happened for metal laptop cases and touch screens, the benefits will be shared across the entire supply chain.

With Apple giving rivals a template for how a mixed-reality headset should work, and by providing vendors a guide for making the parts required, the entire industry will get the kind of boost not seen since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. Previously, he was a technology reporter for Bloomberg News.

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First Published Date: 12 Jun, 15:40 IST