Usually, consumers don’t realize why a product exists until it’s publicly announced. However, with Apple’s rumored virtual reality headset, its purpose or usefulness is already becoming apparent, thanks to all the surrounding products and services the company has developed.
Take Fitness Plus, for example. It is an interactive training service that uses real-time data from Apple Watch wearers to make recorded training videos more engaging. But thanks to Supernatural, the Meta Quest VR exercise app, it’s easy to see how Fitness Plus could be infinitely expanded to run more intense workouts in VR.
Both Bloomberg and The Information have published in-depth stories about Apple’s new mixed reality headset, which includes elements of augmented reality (AR) alongside the VR experience. There is now a trademark application for the operating system that powers the device.
Where there’s smoke there’s fire. So what can we already learn about this unannounced product when a putative Apple headset based on virtual and augmented reality is ready to be demonstrated?
The physical design is suitable for AirPods
Apple has a significant — i.e., profitable — business with its audio wearable AirPods. The company lumps AirPods financials with Apple Watch and other smart home products, so the exact numbers aren’t clear, but analysts will tell you AirPods is doing very well for Apple.
While Bluetooth earbuds aren’t readily used with VR due to audio delays, I can expect Apple to find a way to seamlessly connect the full lineup of AirPods to an upcoming headset. That doesn’t just mean the earbuds, but the AirPods Max as well. It’s hard to imagine someone who spent over $500 on the over-the-ear headphones couldn’t use them with an expensive headset – a device , from which you would expect excellent audio quality.
If that’s the case and AirPods Max are supported, then I think headphones tell us something about the shape of the VR headset. For example, it might not have an overhead strap like the Meta Quest 2. And anything holding the headset in place would make up for the AirPods Max’s large earcups. Apple’s headset will likely differ in design from those of Meta or HTC for at least part of this reason.
It seems odd to have a significant product in your AirPods line – one that Apple could potentially resell to consumers – that doesn’t work with a headset because straps or other physical designs preclude it.
The other reason AirPods seem to be such a bar to mixed reality headset compatibility is their highly touted spatial audio support. Audio technology now enables more depth and surround sound in music, shows and films. In a virtual world, spatial audio could be used in all aspects to guide people.
Live concerts and interviews with Zane Lowe
Speaking of music streaming, Apple Music will likely be a highly acclaimed app for the future device. Apple Music supports spatial audio, sure, but the service has done video live streams of Kanye West’s album debuts in the past. This is video content suitable for a virtual experience. Apple Music also has a human-run internet radio station featuring interviews by Zane Lowe.
With the release of Harry Styles’ new album Harry’s house, the artist’s interview with Lowe, which has been trending on various social media platforms; Fans wanted access to the star. I think Apple won’t waste any time integrating Apple Music content into its virtual reality headset: with live music experiences like concerts and performances, but also interviews where it feels like you’re right next to the people.
My favorite apps on Meta Quest 2 are Beat Saber and Supernatural. There are many fun and engaging experiences out there, but these two bridge the digital and physical worlds in a way that feels genuinely meaningful. They get your heart rate up and burn calories.
With traditional video workouts, it can be difficult to watch the trainers on screen and try to mimic the moves they are performing. Personally, I know I don’t usually move exactly the way they intend and as such I don’t get the full experience. However, with workouts in VR, it is much easier to be guided and align your whole body with the visual elements in the digital world.
Fitness Plus is perfectly positioned to be a killer app and one of the reasons people buy an Apple headset. (Don’t tap in VR until you’ve tried it.)
Last year Apple introduced SharePlay, an underlying technology that allows you to be with friends while still being remote. At the time, it seemed like SharePlay was all about reaching out to people isolated as a result of the pandemic. SharePlay allows you to watch movies with friends. It allows you to show your phone’s screen during a FaceTime call, and people can see and interact more closely even when they’re not in the same room.
SharePlay is great, but over the past year I haven’t found any organic uses for it in my daily life – just crafted ones to test. I have the slightest suspicion that Apple didn’t just design and implement the technically demanding SharePlay for the current use of the feature. I think it’s going to play a much bigger role in how people communicate with each other while using a headset.
That could take the form of broadcasting what the wearer sees to an Apple TV or iPhone. It can also mean seeing your actual iPhone’s screen in the headset. I think this functionality opens up a lot of potential applications with VR and AR.
Memoji is an obvious feature of virtual reality. Typically, not only is some sort of avatar needed for VR, but Apple has spent a lot of time developing hundreds of inclusive looks to truly give people the ability to choose their virtual identity. Being able to come up with Memoji stickers that move their mouth in sync with yours is nice in iPhone Messages, but it makes even more sense in an all-digital environment.
Need TV shows and movies to watch in VR? Apple built its own content library to have media it controls. His own award-winning shows can create immersive versions or bonus content that explore sets, locations, or features fairly freely and easily. This could be a compelling use case for people obsessed with shows severance pay or For all mankind. In the future, Apple could even go down the path of making narrative entertainment that’s like video games you’re in.
Maps and Accessibility
The reports suggest that Apple’s headset will be mixed reality, meaning it will contain both virtual and augmented reality components. It may be able to display your surroundings and overlay digital elements on the screen you are viewing. This kind of functionality would be a big help for accessibility.
Apple recently touted how an iPhone could help people with vision problems cover the final distance to their destination by recognizing text on a door and reading it to a person. This sort of accessibility feature certainly seems useful if it were right on your face and you didn’t have to hold up an iPhone. With Apple’s constant drive to make its devices accessible and helpful to people with certain physical disabilities, there are many ways a headset could help people even further throughout the day.
Apple has also invested heavily in its Maps app over the years, continually improving navigation and discovery. Even if it’s just about exploring a city virtually while standing in your living room, Maps seems like an app that’s ripe for headset integration from day one.
HomeKit devices require a HomePod mini or Apple TV box to act as a hub to enable remote access for smart homes. Apple Watches can unlock Macs without having to enter a password. Along the same lines, I think an Apple headset will eventually interact with other Apple products in small ways. This makes using an Apple headset more enjoyable than one from another company that doesn’t own their full vertical range of consumer products.
What will these subtleties be? Your guess is as good as mine. But if you’ve seen Universal Control in action, where a mouse and keyboard exercise virtual control over another Mac and iPad, you know the company is capable of software magic.