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What Apple’s first mixed reality headset will mean for enterprises

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Over the past five years, the clear trend in mixed reality headsets has been “smaller, better, and more affordable,” a process that has yielded multi-million-selling success stories such as Sony’s PlayStation VR and Facebook’s Oculus Quests, alongside an array of niche headsets targeted largely at enterprises. For consumers, the pitch has been simple — wear this headset and teleport to another place — but for enterprises, particularly data-driven ones, adoption has been slower. High prices, narrower use cases, and “build it yourself” software challenges have limited uptake of enterprise mixed reality headsets, though that hasn’t stopped some companies from finding use cases, or deterred even the largest tech companies from developing hardware.

Apple’s mixed reality headset development has been an open secret for years, and its plans are coming into sharper focus today, as Bloomberg reports that Apple will begin by releasing a deliberately niche and expensive headset first, preparing developers and the broader marketplace for future lightweight AR glasses. This is similar to the “early access launch” strategy we suggested one year ago, giving developers the ability to create apps for hardware that’s 80% of the way to commercially viable; high pricing and a developer/enterprise focus will keep average consumers away, at least temporarily.

For technical decision makers, today’s report should be a wake-up call — a signal that after tentative steps and false starts, mixed reality is about to become a big deal, and enterprises will either need to embrace the technologies or get left behind. Regardless of whether a company needs smarter ways for employees to visualize and interact with masses of data or more engrossing ways to present data, products, and services to customers, mixed reality is clearly the way forward. But the devil is in the details, and Apple’s somewhat confusing approach might seem daunting for some enterprises and developers. Here’s how it’s likely to play out.

Mixed reality, not just virtual or augmented reality

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are subsets of the broader concept of “mixed reality,” which refers to display and computing technologies that either enhance or fully replace a person’s view of the physical world with digitally generated content. It’s easy to get mired in the question of whether Apple is focusing on VR or AR, but the correct answer is “both,” and a given product will be limited largely by its display and camera technologies.

At this point, Apple reportedly plans to start with a headset primarily focused on virtual reality, with only limited augmented reality functionality. This sounds a lot like Facebook’s Oculus Quest, which spends most of its time engrossing users in fully virtual worlds, but can use integrated cameras to let users see basic digital overlays augmenting their actual surroundings. It’s unclear what Apple’s intended VR-to-AR ratio will be for customers, but the company has repeatedly said that it views AR as the bigger opportunity, and if the headset’s being targeted at a high price point, it’s clearly not going to be positioned as a gaming or mass-market entertainment VR product. The initial focus will almost certainly be on enterprise VR and AR applications.

It’s worth mentioning that a well-funded startup called Magic Leap favored the term “spatial computing” as a catchall for mixed reality technologies, and though the company had major issues commercializing its hardware, it envisioned a fully portable platform that could be used indoors or outdoors to composite digital content atop the physical world. Apple appears to be on roughly the same page, with a similar level of ambition, though it looks unlikely to replicate the specifics of Magic Leap’s hardware decisions.

Standalone, not tethered

As Apple’s mixed reality projects have simmered in development, there’s been plenty of ambiguity over whether the first headset would be tethered to another device (iPhone or Mac) or completely standalone. Tethering enables a headset to be lighter in weight but requires constant proximity to a wired computing device — a challenge Facebook’s Oculus Rift tackled with a Windows PC, Magic Leap One addressed with an oversized puck, and Nreal Light answered with an Android phone. Everyone believes that the eventual future of mixed reality is in standalone devices, but making small, powerful, cool-running chips that fit inside “all-in-one” headsets has been a challenge.

The report suggests that Apple has decided to treat mixed reality as its own platform — including customized apps and content — and will give the goggles Mac-class processing power and screens “that are much higher-resolution than those in existing VR products.” This contrasts with Facebook, which evolved the standalone Oculus Quest’s app ecosystem upwards from smartphones; Apple’s approach will give enterprises enough raw power on day one to transform desktop computer apps into engrossing 3D experiences.

Start planning now for 2022, 2023, and 2024

Apple’s mixed reality hardware timeline has shifted: Back in 2017, Apple was expected to possibly offer the headset in 2020, a timeline that was still floated as possible in early 2019, but seemed unlikely by that year’s end as reports instead suggested a 2022 timeframe. The timing is still uncertain — Bloomberg today suggests a launch of the mixed reality goggles in 2022, followed by the lightweight AR glasses “several years” from now — but CIOs shouldn’t ignore the writing on the wall.

Just like the iPad, which arrived in 2010 and made tablets a viable platform after years of unsuccessful Microsoft experiments with “tablet PCs,” companies that quickly took the new form factor seriously were better prepared for the shift to mobile computing that followed. Assuming the latest timeframes are correct, Apple’s approach will be good for enterprises, giving developers at least a year (if not two) to conceive and test apps based on mixed reality hardware, with no pressure of immediate end user adoption. If the goggles sell for $1,000 or $2,000, they’ll appeal largely to the same group of enterprises that have been trialing Microsoft’s high-priced HoloLens or Google Glass Enterprise Edition, albeit with the near-term likelihood of a more affordable sequel — something Microsoft and Google haven’t delivered.

Creation and deployment strategies

Enterprises already have some software tools necessary to prototype mixed reality experiences: Apple’s ARKit has been around since 2017 and now is at version 4, with the latest iPad Pro and iPhone 12 Pro models capable of previewing how mixed reality content will look on 2D displays. The big changes will be in how that content works when viewed through goggles and glasses — a difference nearly any VR user will attest is much larger and more impressive than it sounds.

If they’re not already doing so, progressive companies should start thinking now about multiple facets of their mixed reality needs, including:

  • The breadth of the business’ headset adoption needs at various price points, including $2,000, $1,000, and $500
    • A company’s initial development strategy will be very different if the technology will be universally adopted across the workforce, versus only two total employees using headsets due to price or other considerations
    • Some enterprises are already seeing value in bulk purchases of fairly expensive AR headsets, but use cases with ROI are highly industry-specific
  • Strategies for visualizing the enterprise’s existing 2D data, presentations, and key apps in immersive 3D — has someone already figured this out for a given industry or type of data, or does the enterprise need to invent its own visualization?
  • Hiring or training developers with mixed reality app and content creation experience, with an understanding that rising demand for these specialized workers over the next few years may create hiring and/or retention challenges
  • The customer’s role, including:
    • How to enrich the customer experience using virtual and/or augmented reality
    • Customer expectations for using mixed reality given various hardware price points, such as whether it will be temporarily company-supplied (used at a car dealership for visualizing a vehicle) or owned by the customer and used to access company-offered content at random times of the day and night, like web content

At this stage, many enterprises will find that there are far more questions and preliminary thoughts on adopting mixed reality technologies than concrete answers, and that’s OK — assuming Apple kicks off a bigger race by launching something next year, there’s still ample time for any company to develop a plan and move forward. But now is the time for every company to start thinking seriously about how it will operate and present itself in the mixed reality era, as the only major remaining question isn’t whether it will happen, but when.

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