Apple Is Breaking Its Own Rules With A New Headset

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Zoe Thomas: Apple is known for its standout devices, the iPod, iPhone, and Apple Watch have historically dominated their product sectors. Now, Apple is getting ready to unveil one of its most experimental and unconventional products in its history, a headset that combines a virtual and augmented realities. The device, which is expected to debut at its annual software conference in June is set to break a lot of norms for how the company releases products. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. And with me to discuss this is WSJ Apple Reporter, Aaron Tilley. So, Aaron, you’ve spoken to people familiar with this project. Can you start by describing what we can expect the headset to look like?

Aaron Tilley: Yeah, so it’s going to be a pair of goggles, sort of like ski goggles wrapped around your head. There’s going to be an attachment with a external battery pack that will sit on your hip. And it’s going to be essentially a VR device where it completely encloses you in this virtual world. But on top of that, there’s going to be a lot of cameras sitting out front of the device that can show you the world around it and give you an ability to see the world around you and overlay all this virtual world stuff on top.

Zoe Thomas: What makes this product different from products that Apple has launched in the past?

Aaron Tilley: Yeah, so I think really what marks this is different for Apple is they’re coming into a new category that is still extremely unproven. In the past, they’ve really entered into markets that are quite a lot more well-established. Apple has a history of coming into categories and really making them. You saw that with digital media players, with the iPod, smartphones, with iPhone, wearables, with the Apple Watch. So certainly Apple has this track record of really making a market, but in entering into this space, whatever you want to call it, the Metaverse, mixed reality, augmented virtual reality, it’s just so early in this space and Apple really needs to get going much earlier than I think they would’ve in the past.

Zoe Thomas: From a product design perspective, a headset was never going to look like an iPhone. But is there anything that’s different in the way Apple has approached this headset as opposed to other products it’s released in the past?

Aaron Tilley: Certainly, design-wise, it’s going to not be as sleek as other Apple products. The external battery pack will, I think, add to a certain amount of clunkiness in terms of design. And we’ve seen other headsets of this type launch with these separate packs, like for example, the Magic Leap has a pack that sits on your waist that has the computer chips in the battery, but for Apple, you’d expect maybe a more contained and sleek appearance and design. And on top of that, Apple is entering this market without a lot of expectation in terms of demand.

Zoe Thomas: Yeah. Let’s talk about that for a second, because other companies that make headsets and are in the virtual reality space, they’ve been struggling to build a robust market here. So why does Apple want to get into this space?

Aaron Tilley: There are a lot of people saying it is the next big stage for technology, how people experience technology, and how they will experience the world in the future. And so I think everybody’s experimenting, and if you’re an important player in consumer electronics, like obviously Apple is, you have to be trying these things out, and you have to have some stake in this.

Zoe Thomas: What did industry analysts that you spoke to say Apple’s chances are of standing out in this market?

Aaron Tilley: I think because it’s Apple, everybody’s expecting something pretty impressive. Maybe it’s not the end-all, be-all of what we expect from this kind of technology, but it’s certainly going to sit above many others. Some people are certainly skeptical of the product and really its place in the market. I think there is plenty of skepticism whether or not Apple really even needs to do this. A former director in their marketing department, Michael Gartenberg said that he doesn’t really see this as an Apple product, given the limited appeal it’ll have.

Zoe Thomas: Why is Apple’s CEO Tim Cook taking this risk, and does he have anything to lose if Apple doesn’t make a big splash in headsets?

Aaron Tilley: I think they’ve spent enough money on it and enough time that to not launch anything, and certainly, I’ve heard this from people, that would be a mistake. It’s been many years since Apple’s entered into a major new category. Last time was nearly a decade ago with the Apple Watch, and it’s time for the company to keep releasing new products. It can’t just keep relying on the iPhone forever.

Zoe Thomas: So when do we expect this product to be released? And for people who might want it, how much is it going to cost?

Aaron Tilley: So far it appears based on conversations with folks that their plan is to announce it in June at their Developer’s Conference. And just as a caveat there, they could always delay it. And the price tag is looking around $3,000, so quite a lot of money.

Zoe Thomas: All right, that was our reporter, Aaron Tilley. To hear more tech stories from the Wall Street Journal, ask your Google Assistant to play WSJ Tech News Briefing podcast.

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