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Apple's VR/AR headset report just revealed a major weakness

apple mixed reality headset render
(Image credit: Ian Zelbo)

Update: Where the heck is Apple's AR/VR headset?

Multiple reports about the rumored Apple VR/AR headset have emerged in the past week that paint a rocky road to its becoming a shipping product, even as rumors point to a launch either later this year or in 2023. But yet another report makes us wonder just exactly what purpose the headset serves since Apple is reportedly overlooking one of the key areas that attracts people to virtual reality — gaming.

That report, published by The Information (opens in new tab), details the many twists and turns of the headset development process, including conflicting visions for the device's design and features. It's the second report this week from The Information that chronicles the obstacles Apple has reportedly faced developing its headset.

But one part of the new report stands out to us: Apple is apparently not paying much attention to the VR/AR headset's potential as a gaming device. Specifically, the report claims there's been a "lack of focus on gaming," with Apple apparently not even designing game controllers for the headset. Instead, the report says that multiple sources are confirming that Apple is "aiming to use hand tracking or in combination with a clothespin-like finger clip as inputs for the device."

If true, it's an odd strategy for Apple, given how gaming is at the heart of the biggest successes among virtual reality products — chiefly devices like the Oculus Quest 2 and Oculus Rift. And as The Information points out, mobile gaming is a big reason for the iPhone's success, as third-party developers quickly flooded the App Store with games that took advantage of the iPhone's mobility and touch controls.

Apple has always had a conflicted relationship with gaming, with its Pippin gaming console one of the company's notable failures in the 1990s (a time when there were a lot of Apple failures to choose from). Even to this day, gaming on the Mac platform is a niche experience at best. 

If games aren't the focus of Apple's VR/AR headset, that raises the question of what the device will actually do. The Information article recounts a number of different demos the headset's developers have used over the years to convince Apple executives to back the project, such as realistic-looking avatars with accurate facial expressions thanks to tracking by some of the 14 cameras said to included on the headset. Other demos described in the article include a 3D Japanese garden and spatial audio demos in which the sound of avatars' voices come from different locations.

To that end, video conferencing involving FaceTime (or whatever the VR/AR equivalent of FaceTime with photorealistic avatars is) sounds like it's high on the list of features that Apple's headset team is working to develop. But the question is whether that experience will be superior enough to what's already available on iPhones, iPads and Macs to convince people to don what figures to be a pricey headset.

There's more to The Information's article, such as whether the headset will have an on-device battery or be tethered to a separate power pack like Magic Leap's headset. (That latter approach is apparently favored by former Apple design chief Jony Ive, who reportedly remains involved in the Apple VR/AR headset project as a consultant.) The report also claims that the headset will run on two chips, with the main chip equal to the M2 processor that's in the works for the MacBook Air due out later this year. The second chip apparently handles wireless connectivity.

Apple investors were reportedly shown a demo of the headset last week, an important step in moving the product toward a release date. Originally, that was thought to be at some point this year, but more recently reports have pushed back the probably launch of the Apple VR/AR headset to 2023.

Should it appear, whether this year or next, we'd imagine Apple will have settled on some core features for its headset. But it sounds like we shouldn't count on gaming being one of them.

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.