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Will Apple Vision Pro be a unicorn or a turkey?

Do you believe?
5 minute read
Do you believe?

Apple doesn’t have a perfect track record with new devices, so will the Apple Vision Pro be another iPod or an Apple Newton? Unicorn or Turkey? This is the evidence so far.

The hype has been building around the Apple Vision Pro since it was announced last year, and it seems to have gone through its own mini-accelerated Hype Cycle since. Where you are on the curve depends a lot on where you started, with most people stretched along a point somewhere between the Peak of Inflated Expectations and the Trough of Disillusionment. 

Wherever you are, though, the CES spoiler announcement of a release date certainly kicked things into a higher gear. And with some journalists getting their first taste of the units over the past weeks, we’re now in a much better place to sense its likelihood of success when it goes on sale next Friday.

So, unicorn or turkey? Here’s what we think so far.

The Apple Vision Pro Unicorn Scenario

One of the things that has been interesting to note has been the effect of the trademarked Apple Reality Distortion Field over the past few months. From initial skepticism to growing anticipation, the fact that Cupertino is involved in launching a new headset has generated enough hype for the project to potentially exceed expectations. Partly, of course, this is simply good marketing on Apple’s part, but it also has to be acknowledged that Apple does tend to do many things right in this area.

For a start, the software looks good. There is a decent slate of launch titles; there's a new video format, and critically, Apple has put a lot of effort into growing a software supply ecosystem specifically for the Vision Pro. This is important; it's software that tends to sell hardware, not the other way around, and Apple's history over the past few decades has proven that to be the case on more than one occasion. 

At $3500, it's expensive, but the price will come down as economies of scale kick in. It's worth noting that this is a long bet from Apple. The number of resources plowed into this suggests at least a five-year plan, with theoretically an Apple Vision (i.e., non-Pro) consumer model being launched later. The technology will also iterate and improve. The unknown is how soon the form factor can be shrunk from a headset into something resembling glasses. Maybe a decade away? Perhaps less if certain compromises are made, such as keeping the wearable external battery pack (see below).

It's also worth pointing out that Apple is one of many companies now entering or re-emtering this space. CES had new high-end AR headsets from the likes of Sony and new consumer-oriented ones from the likes of XGear and ASUS. The consumer sets are at much lower price points while still offering the same level of task-oriented functionality in the AR space that the Apple Vision Pro looks to provide and differentiating themselves from the current VR offerings.

This is an important thing to remember about the Apple Vision Pro. This is not another expensive VR headset. Apple doesn't even like people using the phrase augmented reality or mixed reality around it, preferring that they refer to "spatial computing" instead. As such, it is effectively a new class of product, and if it lets people complete tasks in more efficient, even more enjoyable ways than before, then it's likely to do well.

The Apple Vision Pro Turkey Scenario

Apple, however, does not have a perfect record of innovation. Well, some of its devices have opened up new markets and arguably even saved the company at some stages; others have crashed and burned quite impressively. For every iPod and iPhone, there are also impressive failures from history, such as the Apple III, the aforementioned Newton, the Apple Pippin games console, and more. In more recent times, vapourware such as the AirPower multi-device charger needs to be added to the list, and unfortunately, it actually made a lot of the infamous butterfly keyboards. For those who would like a schadenfreude-fueled stroll down memory lane, Gizmodo has a list of some of the best stinkers from the House of Cupertino.

Of course, products don't just fail on their own; they fail for several reasons, and worryingly, Apple Vision Pro exhibits some of these traits. It is very, very expensive. $3500 buys you a lot of Mac, and investing that money into a device that will properly evolve and iterate even faster than the desktop computers are currently doing would feel like a gamble for pretty much any user, even for those with cash to burn.

Add in some of the accessories, such as a travel case ($199), an extra battery ($199), and an extra light seal so that other users can also have a comfortable fit with no light leakage (another $199), and you’re very quickly even over the $4000 mark.

And some of those accessories can be needed as well, because the fact remains that this is a bulky headset. In fact, it looks decidedly un-Apple in its current iteration, with very little of the design pizzazz that we are used to seeing from the company.

According to reports from journalists who have tried it out, it can start to feel heavy to some after even as little as half an hour of use. The dual loop band mitigates this somewhat, but the fact remains that, despite all the technology put in place to integrate you with your surroundings and non-headset wearers, you are still putting on a bulky piece of electronics.

The psychology of this is one of the great unknowns. If Apple offers a compelling enough experience in this new spatial computing environment, then people might well decide that they can put up with it. However, the failure of VR to catch fire in the market in recent years, and even the complete disaster that was 3D TV, which never managed to get over the fact that people didn't want to put on just a special pair of glasses to watch content on their TVs, suggests that there might well be some resistance.

And Apple has not been entirely straight with everyone about this. The journalists who got to try out the headset in strictly managed 30-minute bursts in New York recently were not allowed to take their own photos; Apple took the pictures and supplied them to run with the stories after the event. One of the most notable parts of this is that the photographers were obviously briefed to keep the battery pack and conspicuous lead that plugs into the left-hand side of the headset out of the shot as much as possible. This might not be a tethered device in the strictest sense of the word, but you will have a cable coming out of it that attaches to a battery that has to be either kept in a pocket or placed on a desk and only has a run time of approximately two hours. That extra battery is going to be an important purchase.

It has also emerged that there are some telling software gaps. Netflix and YouTube are just two high-profile companies that have declined to build specific apps for it, instead saying Vision Pro users can access those services through the web. And both companies have even blocked the device running apps designed for iPhone and iPad in compatibility mode.

A Turkicorn? A Unikey? A cat?

So, what is it going to be? Initially, it will likely fall somewhere between the two Turkey and Unicorn camps. The Apple Watch had a slow start but has gone on to great success, and we’re not going to be able to properly assess the Vision Pro until we’re a little further down the line and it’s out and about in the real world. 

But orders have not been hugely strong. Yes, it’s sold out, and Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo estimates that anywhere between 160,000 and 180,000 have been sold in the pre-order period. But the ship date has not ballooned further than 5-7 weeks. “It indicates that demand may quickly taper off after the core fans and heavy users place their orders,” he writes.

In the meantime, though, maybe the truth is that the Apple Vision Pro is actually a lot more like Schrodinger’s cat: we won’t really know what we’ll find until we open the box.

Tags: Technology