On June 5th, Apple unveiled its Vision Pro headset during a conference, marking its first significant product since the Apple Watch in 2015. Although the price currently seems prohibitive, its positioning between virtual and augmented reality should retain the attention of the public in the coming years.
The headset’s price, around $3,500 USD, exceeded market expectations and caused the company’s stock to drop by 0.8% in one day.
Many observers wanted to see this as a failure for Apple, particularly when comparing its strategy to that of Meta, who released a virtual reality headset (Quest) that has already won over the mass market with a price now five to seven times lower.
However, Apple’s launch strategy has yet to fully play out, and it suggests a long-term goal: Apple fully intends to become the leader in this market, and its high price is far from being an obstacle.
A strategic contrast
Indeed, it is quite telling that Apple has introduced its headset as a primarily augmented reality device, that is, a technology that superimposes virtual elements such as images, videos, or information onto the real world. This is done with the intention of enhancing our perception of reality or creating a blended digital experience that interacts with our body (hand movements, eye movements, etc.) and our immediate environment.
By adopting this communication approach, Apple is doing more than just cornering a new commercial niche. They are creating a new offer that differs from the general perception of Meta’s headsets, which are originally designed around virtual reality, that is, an immersive experience in an alternate environment.
The presentation choices made by Apple in its communications and advertisements enforce a simplified interpretation: augmented reality for Apple, virtual reality for Meta.
However, technically, this opposition is largely exaggerated: the Vision Pro will be capable of supporting virtual reality experiences. As for Meta, its upcoming Quest headset will include a “PassThrough” technology that will allow users to see the room in which they are located.
In summary, all manufacturers have clearly understood that there will soon be no distinct boundary between virtual reality and augmented reality. Moreover, they recognize that the future of immersive technology lies in the possibility of a mixed reality that accommodates both, depending on the needs of users. So, why has Apple chosen to position their device in this way?
When a tool predates its use
Apple rightly compares Vision Pro to a computer, as it is indeed a hardware device open to software applications. Apple has aimed to create a tool that will accommodate future technologies, the development of which could take an infinite number of forms (2D, 3D, standalone animations or those linked to real environments, etc.)
The metaverse, which Apple strategically avoided mentioning during the conference, is thus not expected to be at the core of the device’s functionality. In contrast, Meta has created a catalyst for the software that it has already developed, in gaming and in the metaverse, aiming to immerse its users.
The question of price, so widely debated, should therefore be considered in light of this difference. What is the right price for a tool that anticipates its uses?
This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Apple. The situation harks back to the debut of the first Macintosh computers in 1984. Priced at what would equate to $7,000 USD today, their computers found little appeal among households, their utility not yet recognized. Indeed, Apple managed to sell fewer than a million units in the initial three years post-launch!
Apple’s philosophy is evident once again: a tool must precede, prefigure, and shape its uses. Sometimes, these tools are capable of accommodating and fostering their use immediately, as was the case with the iPhone. At other times, they predate their uses by several years, like with the Macintosh. And sometimes, the tools themselves refine their uses: consider the Apple Watch, initially designed with a marginal focus on health and fitness but which has evolved into one of its major applications today.
Understanding the pricing of the Vision Pro, beyond its technological sophistication (which, by the way, is Apple’s real tour de force in this scenario), needs to be tied to this question of use cases. It is a safe bet that the price will follow the 1984 precedent and will stabilize downwards as the uses become clearer, and as competitors, on their end, increase the prices of their devices!
The Vision Pro headset: shaping the future of mixed reality
The Vision Pro headset will theoretically be available for sale in 2024, and its commercial impact is still, at this stage, difficult to anticipate.
Meta’s fear is clear: Apple’s early announcement could persuade a wealthier, and potentially more influential, customer base to hold off their next purchases for the Vision Pro, which would harm the launch of Quest headsets. Meta, which just announced the delay of the Quest 3 launch, will need to find other ways to solidify its market leadership position (industrial partnerships with exclusive software, etc.).
Even though Mark Zuckerberg, during a Meta meeting after Apple’s event, argued that Apple hasn’t come up with anything radically new, the introduction of Vision Pro poses a challenge for his company.
If mixed reality is set to be the next significant digital environment, Meta needs to ensure it doesn’t fall under the control of a manufacturer or proprietor that could potentially pose a threat to them.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Apple is telling a lie to get at the truth. However, by emphasizing augmented reality (and positioning itself in the continuity of its commercial history, based on the proposition of a simplified ergonomic experience), the company is symbolically instigating a competition where it only has to progressively reduce its prices and develop use cases as its users explore the tool.
Only the future will tell what approach will work, like it did at the company’s inception!
Originally published in French in Bilan Magazine