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Apple’s VR/AR headset could still be a big challenge to make a reality — but that's OK

apple vr and mixed reality headset fan render front view on blue background
(Image credit: Ian Zelbo)

Update: Ming-Chi Kuo has refuted rumors the Apple headset may appear at WWDC, claiming Apple isn't likely to show off the headset so far ahead of launch

The Apple VR/AR headset has been rumored for quite some time, but unfortunately it may still be a while before it becomes a product you can actually buy. 

Last month, we heard that it might not arrive until 2023, and that's hardly surprising based on a new report from The Information (opens in new tab), which details a difficult journey for Apple and mixed reality. 

The Information spoke with 10 people said to be close to the Apple headset project, most of whom apparently worked on the team itself. Interestingly, the first prototype headsets were built back in 2016. According to sources they were either modified HTC Vives or “cobbled together” and were too heavy to use unaided.

Executives testing the headsets are said to have needed a “small crane” to avoid straining their neck. The most bizarre part, though? The prototype headsets supposedly ran Windows, rather than some variant of Apple’s own software. Despite those limitations, however, Apple’s board was convinced to support the project.

Facebook’s apparent interest in this space also reportedly helped spur them on. Considering Facebook, now Meta, is investing heavily in AR glasses, it seems Apple’s fears weren’t unfounded. 

Technical troubles

apple mixed reality and vr headset fan render from below

(Image credit: Ian Zelbo)

The Apple VR/AR headset is also said to have faced technical challenges that have led to the delay in bringing it to market. The Information’s sources liken it to the iPhone’s troubled development, but point out that Steve Jobs was heavily involved in that particular project.

In contrast, the report says that while current CEO Tim Cook supports the headset, he has not played as active a role in its development. This, in turn, is said to have made it hard for those working on the headset to get the resources they need for it to compete with other projects, including the Mac and iPhone.

Former Apple design chief Jony Ive was also said to have been an obstacle to the headset's development. Initially, a three-person team led by Mike Rockwell had wanted to build a VR headset. But Ive’s team had concerns about VR, believing it alienated users by cutting them off from the world, lacked practical uses and made them look “unfashionable." They were similarly unconvinced that people would want to wear a headset for extended periods.

This is where the idea of a mixed reality device came into play. The VR team proposed adding cameras to the headset, so users could see their surroundings, though that isn’t what sold the idea to the design team. 

Instead, they were more impressed with the idea of an outward-facing screen, so other people could see a headset user’s eyes and facial expressions on display. That way the risk of alienation would be reduced, and there could be a new level of interaction not possible with other VR headsets. However, the presence of this outward-facing display was only known to a small group.

Past rumors also claim Ive “balked” at the idea of selling a headset that required a base station. That meant development had to pivot towards making the Apple VR/AR headset more independent — but also less powerful.

The Information claims it will have a follow-up report that focuses on later stages of the Apple headset’s development, specifically the period around 2019, which was said to be a “pivotal moment." So expect more Apple headset revelations to arrive in the coming days or weeks. 

When could we see an Apple Mixed Reality headset? 

At Toms Guide, we mostly prefer to look forward not backwards. But The Information's report does lend further weight to the idea that the Apple VR/AR headset may not arrive for some time yet. 

How long will we need to wait? Well analyst Jeff Pu of Haitong International Securities said the headset reveal may be pushed back to next year, while Bloomberg's Mark Gurman has suggested it could be revealed this fall but not actually released until 2023. But with a lack of strong rumors of late, even this launch date could be a little ambitious. 

Yet, Apple can take its time here. 

VR has become more accessible than ever, with the likes of the Oculus Quest 2 providing an all-in-one virtual reality experience and earning the top spot on our best VR headset list in the process. Despite this, VR is arguably still a niche concern in the technology world. The fact that there aren't a swathe of new VR headsets, and that the likes of the Xbox Series X have no VR compatibility, could be used as evidence of this. 

The same could be said for AR, especially when it comes to smart glasses — which have yet to really take off. Apple now has plenty of tools to let developers put AR into their iPhone apps, and the results can be rather impressive; IKEA's app lets you place virtual furniture in your room to get an idea of what the real thing would look like, for instance. Yet the tech still has some ways to go before it's super slick and immersive. 

And if we look at Apple's product history, it tends not to be first to the market with new technologies, instead concentrating on being the best at implementing what's already out there. Case in point: the iPhone lagged behind Android devices by a couple of years when it came to high refresh rate displays, but with the iPhone 13 Pro, Apple uses a 120 Hz display with an LTPO panel, meaning users get a super-smooth screen that doesn't suck up battery power. 

With that in mind, Apple will likely take as long as it needs in order to make a mixed reality headset that offers the best AR/VR experience possible, but which could also set a new standard in the industry and make VR more mainstream. 

WWDC 2022 is on the horizon, and while we may not see any new hardware there, we could get a hit at what Apple is doing on the software side to facilitate future devices. As such, we'll be keeping our eyes and ears open for any hints at evolutions in AR and VR tools, which could finally pave the way for an impressive Apple AR/VR headset or even the Apple Glasses

Tom Pritchard
Automotive Editor

Tom is the Tom's Guide's Automotive Editor, which means he can usually be found knee deep in stats the latest and best electric cars, or checking out some sort of driving gadget. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining that Ikea won’t let him buy the stuff he really needs online.