February 21, 2024

Apple on Monday lived up to expectations for months when it unveiled new high-tech goggles that blend the real world with virtual reality. The $3,500 device, called the Vision Pro, will offer “augmented reality” capabilities and introduce “spatial computing,” Apple said.

But the word “virtual reality” was conspicuously absent from the company’s carefully crafted announcement, underscoring the challenges the tech giant may face in marketing the device to the masses.

Interest in virtual reality briefly rose after the pandemic introduced mainstream audiences to the idea of ​​the Metaverse, an immersive online world popularized by science fiction. But as people return to their pre-pandemic lives, the concept loses momentum, investors turn to artificial intelligence, and it becomes clear just how much technological innovation is needed to realize such a futuristic vision.

Past VR products, including Google Glass, Magic Leap, Microsoft’s HoloLens, and Meta’s Quest Pro, either failed commercially or were only moderately successful. So far, companies have failed to demonstrate what is indispensable for virtual reality.

Analysts don’t expect the Vision Pro, which goes on sale early next year, to have a major impact on the mainstream market — at least at first. The $3,500 price tag might put off many consumers.

Carolina Milanesi, a consumer technology analyst at research firm Creative Strategies, said she doesn’t think the headphones “will be for mass-market consumers.” Instead, she said, “it will be geared toward early adopters — where Apple most often starts — and developers.”

If the device lacks broad appeal, it remains a useful trial run for Apple, which could eventually create a virtual reality product, such as a pair of lightweight glasses, aimed at a wider consumer base.

“I don’t think Apple has high expectations,” said Jeff Fieldhack, research director at Counterpoint Research. “They know it’s an evolution that will take some time.”

Apple could also jump to the forefront of the XR market — a term for extended reality, similar to virtual reality, Mr. Fieldhack said.

“I believe it will be regarded as the best of its kind,” he said. “This will bring about extraordinary improvements in display quality, resolution, refresh rate, and possibly brightness, feel — all of these issues that XR has had so far, and many of them will be addressed.”

The potential challenges for the Vision Pro in the market didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the thousands of attendees at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday. At the company’s spaceship-shaped headquarters in Cupertino, California, Apple executives cheered as they discussed the device’s capabilities.

In a largely pre-recorded presentation that lasted more than two hours and touched on a range of other products, Apple repeatedly said that using the new VR goggles felt like “magic.”

“There are products that change the way we think about technology and the role it plays in our lives,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook. “We believe Apple Vision Pro is a revolutionary product.”

The headset, which looks like a pair of ski goggles, will have a three-dimensional interface where users can view their surroundings and virtual reality simultaneously, or switch between the two to emphasize one mode or block it out entirely. It will have the same types of apps as other Apple devices, such as FaceTime and Safari, with a screen that hovers in the air in front of the user and becomes larger or smaller at will. The wires connected to the earphones plug into the battery pack, which provides two hours of battery life.

People can unlock the device by scanning their eyes, the company said. Customers will use their eyes, voice and fingers to move displays and open applications without any additional hardware. Apple says the Vision Pro will be a useful tool for work and play, with a powerful sound and visual system similar to a personalized movie theater.

Some have speculated that the Vision Pro could build on Apple’s growing content portfolio and offer exclusive content such as movies, games or TV shows. In a brief appearance, Disney CEO Robert A. Iger made no promises beyond making Disney+ available when Vision Pro launches.

Apple also announced a slew of other updates and new products, such as a 15-inch MacBook Air laptop and improved chips for desktop computers. The company rolled out an updated operating system for its computers, AirPods, watches and iPhones, with features like the Journal app, FaceTime video messaging and a standby mode with a bigger clock on the phone’s home screen.

The event was largely silent on artificial intelligence. Apple debuted improvements to its Siri voice command system — such as its ability to recognize family pets in groups of photos — along with better autocorrect text messages and real-time transcription of voicemails.

But unlike other big tech companies, Apple avoided discussing in depth what AI means for the company.

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