Before Apple’s Vision Pro, there was Microsoft Hololens, Google Glass and Meta Quest. The Cupertino company is embarking on a challenge against which its direct competitors have broken their teeth.
The Apple Vision Pro has been made official after years of rumors, but also after years of testing by competitors. Where the iPhone was launched on a smartphone market where everything remained to be invented, the same cannot be said for that of mixed reality.
Before the Apple Vision Pro, there was Microsoft Hololens, Google Glass, Google DayDream or Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse. Each of these attempts by the tech giants has encountered great difficulties from which we can undoubtedly learn lessons.
Google Glass: beware of the on-board camera
We can already go back more than ten years to talk about the launch of Google Glass, or Project Glass, in 2012. At that time, the project was led by the co-founder of the company Sergey Brin who did not hesitate not to make a big demonstration of it at the Google I/O with a lot of parachuting on the roof of the conference. We are then talking about augmented reality glasses, which are incapable of immersing you in a virtual universe.
Google Glass only offered the ability to display information on a heads-up interface, such as a map for your GPS route. They also included a small camera allowing you to capture a moment of life at any time.
It is this technological choice that will immediately condemn the product in society: no one wants to sit at the table of someone who can photograph you at any time without warning you out of the corner of their eye. English speakers take the opportunity to invent the insult “glasshole” for wearers of glasses.
In a few months, Google reduced the budget and then abandoned its big project.
It is also a function imagined by Apple for its headphones and that the firm has even decided to highlight in its conference. In 2023, is society now ready to accept helmet wearers who can film and photograph moments? The idea of a father with a helmet on his head at the time of his child’s birthday can question us about our relationship to moments and technology.
Microsoft Hololens: the right vision, too soon?
The field of mixed reality was also invested by Microsoft during the 2010s. First with its augmented reality headset Hololens, also marketed at more than 3000 dollars, like the Apple Vision Pro. For Apple, its product makes ” spatial computing “. At Microsoft, we prefer to talk about holograms. The promise in both cases is really very close, but the technological realization is different.
The Hololens helmet does not hide you from the real world, since it is an augmented reality helmet. It will project 3D on windows placed in front of your eyes to mix the virtual with the real. Unfortunately, the product suffers from teething problems such as its too restricted field of vision. On the other hand, it finds its place in the industrial world, in particular from Hololens 2 thanks to real-time business applications.
The project is probably also the victim of a Microsoft that is looking for itself and does not know if it should compete head-on with the rest of tech when it comes to the consumer market. Thus, the demonstrations of Hololens will be done with the Minecraft game, even at E3, but without really going as far as marketing the helmet at a more affordable price. The manufacturing constraints of the Hololens helmet also seem to have proved to be a dead end in reducing this cost.
Microsoft has tried to recycle its ideas with a range of virtual reality headsets built by its partners at a low price. They were almost immediately abandoned by the firm, which has since laid off a large part of the teams working on these projects.
Apple seems to have had the wisdom to wait for technical improvements to be able to offer a headset that really does mixed reality: that is to say, a projection of the real world in a virtual reality headset to be able to mix the two universe.
The Cupertino company also seems to have been inspired by the interaction modes developed by Microsoft. The Vision Pro helmet, like Hololens, is controlled by finger and pinch, with a virtual interface that falls under the gaze.
Meta: changing the company name is not enough
Meta is, as its name suggests, the company among the tech giants that has arguably made the biggest bet in this market. The firm bought Oculus in 2014, one of the first players in modern virtual reality. With the Covid crisis, Facebook transformed the name of the company into Meta to acknowledge that the future would be for it in a virtual world.
Despite the great announcement effects, until the surprise (and urgent?) presentation of his Meta Quest 3 a few days before the Apple conference, Mark Zuckerberg’s vision does not seem to be convincing. To invade the market, the businessman has focused his strategy on virtual reality, with Oculus Studio productions, and on the gradual arrival of mixed reality as a social experience.
In its presentation, Apple does not mention virtual reality games at any time, merely talking about the availability of Apple Arcade to play games on a two-dimensional virtual screen. The Cupertino company, on the other hand, takes up one of the good ideas of the Meta Quest Pro: the idea of using a mixed reality headset to work by projecting giant virtual screens, impossible on a small laptop PC.
Apple also takes up the social dimension desired by Meta through the demonstration of FaceTime. But both companies are making a big difference in their vision. On the one hand, Meta sees a future where you could have a 3D avatar in a virtual universe like your character in an MMORPG. On the other, Apple restricts itself to the idea of a FaceTime conversation: your interlocutors are in 2D, and you are represented on their screen using a virtual avatar.
Unlike Google and Microsoft, Meta has not thrown in the towel from the metaverse, even if the firm seems to be redirecting certain resources towards artificial intelligence. In the years to come, Apple and Meta could therefore confront their visions through state-of-the-art devices.
This is also a difficulty for Apple. When it entered other markets, Apple could take advantage of the mistakes of the competition, especially when the latter was in a dominant and not very dynamic situation. In the case of mixed reality, you can’t say that Mark Zuckerberg’s company is twiddling its thumbs. The Meta laboratories are working hard to meet the technical challenges to always reduce the size of these helmets and create increasingly realistic virtual environments.
A proven market
Unlike the smartphone, tablet or connected watch markets, Apple is entering a market here that has already been tested by the tech giants. This is what can puzzle a large number of observers: can the Cupertino company succeed with a $3,500 helmet where all its direct competitors have broken their teeth?
Apple has on its side the power of its brand image that forces the entire industry to stop to watch its conferences and note the manufacturer’s vision. It now remains to materialize this vision with the launch of a product, to convince the developers to seize it and to trace the road for a future next to the Mac and the iPhone.