Apple’s VR headset could launch early, and that’s risky

Tim Cook has pushed for Apple to launch its Reality Pro mixed-reality headset as soon as possible, despite objections from the company’s powerful design team. The move raises questions over whether the device will be ready for primetime when it launches this summer.

The news comes from the Financial Times (FT), which cites a former Apple engineer as a source. This engineer allegedly worked on the headset project, and noted that there is “huge pressure” on Apple to launch the Reality Pro after years of postponements.

A rendering of an Apple mixed-reality headset (Reality Pro) in a gray color seen from the front.
Apple headset render. Ahmed Chenni,

The delays and subsequent push to launch this year reflect a split between Apple’s operations and design teams, according to the FT. In fact, the outlet claims divisions were apparent right from the start of the project in 2016, citing “multiple people familiar with Apple’s internal discussions.”

The operations team, on the one hand, wanted to launch a “version one” headset that would resemble a set of ski goggles and let users “watch immersive 3D video, perform interactive workouts or chat with realistic avatars through a revamped FaceTime.”

However, that didn’t sit well with the design team, whose members wanted Apple to wait until the technology was mature enough to release a pair of augmented reality glasses. In the end, this idea was overruled by Tim Cook, who sided with chief operating officer Jeff Williams and the operations team.

Gaining a foothold

A rendering of an Apple mixed-reality headset (Reality Pro) in a purple color seen from the side
Ahmed Chenni,

The drive to announce the headset this year could mean Apple wants to establish itself in the nascent mixed-reality space as soon as possible, rather than waiting until it can perfect the technology and sweep its rivals away. That’s outside of the norm for Apple, and suggests its operations side is gaining power previously enjoyed by the company’s designers.

In steaming ahead with the release date, the risks to Apple could be greater, especially if users feel the headset isn’t fully ready. Rumors have claimed it will be an expensive, high-end device, and the FT claims Apple is only expecting to sell around a million units of the Reality Pro in its first year.

Still, that could capture up to 10% of the virtual reality headset market, according to analysts at CCS Insight, which would give Apple a foothold to expand the headset’s capabilities and appeal in the future.

That said, the one million units figure might be generous — display industry expert Ross Young reacted to the news by saying one million units was “much too high” because Apple’s micro OLED supplier “can’t make that many in a year.”

The Reality Pro will be Apple’s first foray into a new product category since the Apple Watch launched in 2015, and as such it is fraught with risk. With an announcement expected at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June, we could soon find out if Tim Cook’s gamble will pay off.

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