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A recipe for Apple VR headset success

Commentary: It's time for Apple to get fully into VR and for Google to take another stab at it.

Oculus Quest 2

Facebook's Oculus Quest 2 could show where Apple heads next. But think more expensive, and hopefully more connected to your other (Apple) computers.

Scott Stein/CNET

Nearly every major player in tech has been dreaming of smartglasses over the past few years. From Amazon's Echo Frames to Facebook's plans for augmented reality, to Microsoft's HoloLens and the ongoing reports of Apple's AR plans -- there's a lot that seems to be cooking. But in the short term, the road to magical Tony Stark glasses is more likely to be through VR. That's exactly what Bloomberg's Mark Gurman reports as Apple's next step: a pair of advanced VR goggles that could be, in some ways, like Facebook's popular Oculus Quest.

Apple's never had any VR headset (or eyewear) before, and looms large over the landscape with an already-growing interest in augmented reality. Apple also bought VR company NextVR last May. Google, meanwhile, already made its own VR headset years ago and even acquired VR software companies behind apps like Tilt Brush and Job Simulator. But Google moved away from VR since then, focusing on AR.

VR hardware is already here and it's surprisingly good. The Oculus Quest 2 is one of my favorite game consoles and is easy to set up and dive into. But VR everywhere else is still experiencing growing pains. PC VR has fantastic games and some excellent headsets, but they're still awkward, wired and require very specific hardware to run (and still feel glommed onto Windows, instead of organic). The new PlayStation 5 currently treats PlayStation VR, originally released in 2016, like an afterthought.

What's needed right now isn't just better-working tech: it's deep support in apps and phones, so these headsets can feel like they're talking to everything else in your setup.

Most VR headsets feel stuck on their own islands: specific games, apps and barely any cross-communication between computers or phones, or anything else. They're shockingly removed from the mobile device ecosystem -- smartwatches feel more hooked into my life than any VR headset ever did. For a lot of art and experiences that VR does best, this disconnectedness works well. It's like a head-worn isolation tank. But it's a really bad fit for making VR any sort of tool you'll ever want to use in everyday life.

VR's always felt like headphones for my eyes, a way to expand a view all around me and dive into something more fully. Headphones are plug-and-play and just work with whatever you need. VR headsets don't do that. But maybe they could. Maybe that's exactly what Apple -- and even Google -- should enable next. 

airpods-max-baby-yoda

Apple does ears now. When will it do eyes?

David Carnoy/CNET

AirPods Max for your eyes: A fantastic head-worn display

Apple's recent headphone moves paint a clear path already. The AirPods Max, with their spatial audio and extremely high price, are going for design, immersion and fidelity. The same will be the case with any VR headset. VR displays are getting progressively better and now are crisp enough to almost not see any pixels. But they're still not better than the phone screens and monitors and TVs we use all the time. There's only one VR headset I've ever seen, by Varjo, that seemed "retina level" enough to be as good or better than a giant monitor. Knowing Apple, it would seem that  going for "the best display," or promising that, would be a big goal.

google-daydream-view-vr-virtual-reality-9774

The old Google Daydream was a pair of goggles for your phone. Wrong execution, but VR still needs to figure out a way to work with the phone (and apps) in your pocket.

James Martin/CNET

VR headsets need to work with iOS (and Android) phones

Yes, phones already had a VR goggles phase. But those mid-2010s accessories were basically plastic lenses you snapped onto your phone and were extremely basic compared to what devices like the Oculus Quest can do. 

But now, VR headsets like the Quest barely talk to phones at all and instead run their own apps. Facebook's walled garden of content, which requires a Facebook account, needs to work better with other devices if it's going to be a better home office tool, which is something  Facebook is planning. Facebook might get there, but cooperation from Apple (iOS, Mac) and Google (Android, Chrome) is needed. Even Facebook's relationship with Windows, when it comes to running Oculus apps, feels split apart.

Phones and tablets are already super powerful and could work as full computers with VR headsets as peripherals. Apple could extend iOS into headsets and bridge across to the iPhone, iPad and even the Watch to blend the experiences together. 

Google started to explore VR with its Daydream platform, then backed away. Even if Google doesn't make its own VR ecosystem, it needs to have Android play better with headsets that want to interact.

Apple's chips could work on larger VR headsets first and figure out smaller glasses later

Qualcomm's recent moves over the last couple of years, opening up a path for lightweight headsets and glasses to link up with phones and eventually stream graphics over 5G, look like what the future could bring. Qualcomm's processors are inside just about every VR and AR headset right now: the Oculus Quest 2, Microsoft HoloLens 2, Vuzix's next glasses.

Apple's clear path involves developing or adapting its own extremely powerful phone and Mac chips to headset form and doing, in a sense, what Qualcomm's been doing. Or something potentially more advanced.

But smartglasses that do AR are, according to nearly every company I've spoken to, still years away. A VR headset that dabbles in AR effects, blending reality with cameras that can see the outside world, is a clear middle step.

Lidar is already here: It could ramp up VR headsets and also mix reality

Apple has put lidar sensors on its pro iPads and iPhones already, using depth sensing to map out and "mesh" a room to create a 3D map of what's there, so that virtual objects can be layered in. Headsets like the Oculus Quest 2 can scan room obstacles to some degree with basic external cameras, but lidar can do it a lot more accurately, and possibly more quickly.

An upcoming pro VR headset made by the Finnish company Varjo has lidar, allowing it to also scan the world and bring real-life objects into VR.

What I really want is a collision-detection system that could keep me from ramming my hands into a wall or desk, but that would need lidar to be up and running constantly. I'm not sure if Apple's lidar could do that without a big battery life hit.

Oculus Quest 2

Oculus Quest controllers are great, but they're more like gamepads than a work tool.

Scott Stein/CNET

Would Apple figure out a better VR controller?

The Oculus Quest 2 has great controllers, but they feel more like a game console's gamepad -- buttons, analog sticks, triggers. That's good for games, not great for making a VR headset into a next-gen computer. Would Apple use hand tracking and air gestures, like the Quest and Microsoft HoloLens already have, or develop some sort of worn band (like an Apple Watch) that could help? 

It's one of my biggest question marks for an Apple VR headset, because I can't imagine what they might do.

Something that could shift between standalone, phone, iPad or Mac seamlessly

Much like the AirPods, or Apple's cross-device continuity for AirDrop and sharing files and links, a VR headset should work on whatever is nearby. The Oculus Quest comes closest to this by working on its own, or with a Windows PC when connected with a USB-C cable

The more Apple and Google let headsets work with their devices, the better everything will be

Even more than an Apple VR/AR headset, I want the next versions of iOS and Android (and MacOS, and even ChromeOS) to allow for these things to connect. Without that glue, VR headsets are destined to always feel like weird toys. I already use VR for a lot more than I ever expected. But if I'm ever going to use it for anything more, or if Apple intends to position its hardware as a pro creative tool, it needs to work well with everything else.