Apple's Mixed Reality Headset: What to Expect in 2023
The company's next big product should arrive this year. Here's what we think we know.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
The announcement of this AR/VR headset has been sliding for a while, and now seems like it'll be revealed at Apple's WWDC developer conference in June, with a possible release date later in the year... or, as soon as this summer. According to the most recent reports, the hardware will have a separate battery pack and a slim visor design, and will use prescription lens inserts. It may not be the final form of the ideal headset Apple is intending to make, but it's a sort of foot in the door.
As far as what its device could be like, odds are strong that the headset could work from a similar playbook as Meta's recent high-end headset, the Quest Pro, with a focus on work, mixed reality and with eye tracking on board. HTC's recent glasses-sized VR headset, the Vive XR Elite, may also hint at home small all of these headsets are going to be.
Watch this: What It Means for Apple to Reveal VR at WWDC
Here's what we're expecting. Apple declined to comment for this story.
Is its name Reality Pro? Is the software called xrOS?
Gurman suggests the operating system for this headset could be called "xrOS," but that may not indicate the name of the headset itself. Recent trademark filings reported by Bloomberg showed the name "Reality" showing up a lot: Reality One, Reality Pro and Reality Processor. Apple's existing AR software framework for iOS is named RealityKit, and previous reports suggested that "Reality OS" could be the name for the new headset's ecosystem.
No one really expected the Apple Watch's name (remember iWatch?), so to some degree, names don't matter at this point. But it does indicate that Apple's moving forward on a product and software, for sure.
Whatever the headset might become, it's looking a lot more real lately. A detailed report from The Information last year discussed likely specs, which include what Bloomberg's Gurman says is Apple's latest M2 chip. According to another report from Bloomberg earlier last year, Apple's board of directors has already seen a demonstration of the mixed-reality headset.
But a more recent detailed breakdown of the headset's features by Gurman suggests a product that's targeted at pro customers, with limited battery life and a set of unique social functions.
Apple had been reportedly targeting AR glasses after this headset, but those may be pushed off for now in favor of a more affordable mixed reality VR-type headset after Apple releases this first expensive "Gen 1" model.
This VR-type headset could eventually be the start of several lines of products, similar again to how Meta has been targeting future AR glasses while also making lower-cost and higher-end VR gear.
Mixed reality, eye tracking, and a digital crown
Gurman's recent January report details a lot of the headset's functions, and emphasizes an array of cameras that will allow pass-through camera-enabled mixed reality much like the Quest Pro. A combination of eye and hand tracking will be used for interaction, while a digital crown will allow toggling between AR and VR modes.
The report also points to the headset doubling as a connected display for Macs (current VR headsets can also do this), enabling more realistic avatar chat for one-on-one FaceTime calls, and having a separate battery pack attached by a cable to the headset.
Gurman suggests a focus on gaming, media and communication on this initial first-wave headset, and in particular on immersive VR video. In terms of communication, Gurman believes FaceTime using the rumored headset could also rely on Memoji and SharePlay: Instead of seeing the person you're talking to, you'd see a 3D version of their personalized Memoji avatar. The level of realism could scale depending on the number of people in a call.
Eventually, Apple's plans for this headset could become larger. The company's "goal is to replace the iPhone with AR in 10 years," Kuo explained in a note to investors, seen by MacRumors. The device could be relatively lightweight, about 300 to 400 grams (roughly 10.5 to 14 ounces), according to Kuo. That's lighter than Meta's Oculus Quest 2. However, it's larger than a normal pair of glasses, with early renders of its possible design looking a lot more like futuristic ski goggles. Gurman's reports also point to the AirPods Max as a hint of what the design feel will be like.
The headset could be expensive, maybe as much as $3,000 or more, with its Sony-made high-res displays, eye tracking and cameras that can scan the world and blend AR and VR together. The Information reported on these possibilities back in 2021, and it's to be expected, considering the Quest Pro costs $1,500 and AR headsets like the Magic Leap 2 and HoloLens 2 are around $3,000.
Apple's headset seems to line right up with how VR is evolving: lighter weight, with added mixed-reality features via more advanced pass-through cameras. Much like the Quest Pro, this will likely be a bridge to future AR glasses efforts.
Previous reports on Apple's AR/VR roadmap suggested internal disagreements, or a split strategy that could mean a VR headset first, and more normal-looking augmented reality smart glasses later. But recent reports seem to be settling down to tell the story of a particular type of advanced VR product leading the way. What's increasingly clear is that the rest of the AR and VR landscape is facing a slower-than-expected road to AR glasses, too.
Watch this: What Apple's expensive 8K VR headset could be like
VR is a more easily reachable goal in the short term.
Apple has been in the wings all this time without any headset at all, although the company's aspirations in AR have been clear and well-telegraphed on iPhones and iPads for years. Each year, Apple's made significant strides on iOS with its AR tools. It's been debated how soon this hardware will emerge -- this year, the year after or even later down the road -- and whether Apple proceeds with just glasses, or with a mixed-reality VR and AR headset, too.
I've had my own thoughts on what the long-rumored headset might be, and so far, the reports feel well-aligned to be just that. Much like the Apple Watch, which emerged among many other smartwatches and had a lot of features I'd seen in other forms before, Apple's headset probably won't be a massive surprise if you've been paying attention to the AR and VR landscape lately. And, much like the Apple Watch, I'd expect Apple to steadily improve the hardware and software in future generations.
Software: gaming, fitness, and lots of iPad apps?
Recent reports point to a lot of key applications that mirror the focus areas seen on the Meta Quest 2: workouts, gaming and work/productivity tools. Apple could lean on its Arcade gaming catalog, as well as its FItness workouts. The collaborative work app Freeform, released last fall, could be a key app as well.
In fact, Apple could lean on the whole iPad app catalog. The headset is reported to run most existing iPad apps, but also enhance some for 3D VR and mixed reality extras. If that's the game plan, then it could make the iPad the center of Apple's next-wave software universe.
Launch date: Looks set for 2023
New Apple products tend to be announced months before they arrive, maybe even earlier. The iPhone, Apple Watch, HomePod and iPad all followed this path.
Some reports have pointed to possible delays for the release of the headset to the second half of 2023, but more recent rumors suggest a launch as soon as this summer.
Either way, developers would need a long head start to get used to developing for Apple's headset, and making apps work and flow with whatever Apple's design guidance will be. That's going to require Apple giving a heads-up on its hardware well in advance of its actual arrival.
An Apple headset could be a lot like the Meta Quest, but higher end
There's already one well-polished success story in VR, and the Quest 2 looks to be as good a model as any for where future headsets could aim. Gurman's report makes a potential Apple VR headset sound a lot like Facebook's stand-alone device, with controller-free hand tracking and spatial room awareness that could be achieved with Apple's lidar sensor technology, introduced on the iPad Pro and iPhone 12 Pro.
Apple's headset could end up serving a more limited professional or creative crowd. But it could also go for a mainstream focus on gaming or fitness. My experiences with the Oculus Quest's fitness tools feel like a natural direction for Apple to head in, now that the Apple Watch is extending to subscription fitness training, pairing with TVs and other devices.
Watch this: Meta Quest 2 Is Better and Cheaper… With One Facebook Catch
The Oculus Quest 2 (now officially the Meta Quest 2) can see through to the real world and extend some level of overlap of virtual objects like room boundaries, but Apple's headset could explore pass-through augmented reality to a greater degree. I've seen impressive examples of this in headsets from companies such as Varjo. It could be a stepping stone for Apple to develop 3D augmented reality tech on smaller glasses' designs down the road.
Right now, there aren't any smart glasses manufacturers able to develop normal-looking glasses that can achieve advanced, spatially aware 3D overlays of holographic objects. Some devices like the nReal Light have tried, with mixed success. Meta's first smart glasses, Ray-Ban Stories, weren't AR at all. Meta is working on ways to achieve that tech later on. Apple might take a similar approach with glasses, too.
The Meta Quest Pro and Vive XR Elite already show how VR headsets are bridging into being more portable mixed-reality devices. Apple could follow a similar path.
The VR headset should be a 'Pro' device
Most existing reports suggest Apple's VR headset would likely be so expensive -- and powerful -- that it will have to aim for a limited crowd rather than the mainstream. If so, it could target the same business and creative professionals that more advanced VR headsets like the Varjo XR-3 and Meta Quest Pro are already aiming for.
I tried Varjo's hardware. My experience with it could hint at what Apple's headset might also be focusing on. It has a much higher-resolution display (which Apple is apparently going to try to achieve), can blend AR and VR into mixed reality using its pass-through cameras, and is designed for pro-level creative tools. Apple could integrate something similar to its lidar sensors. The Quest Pro does something similar, but in a stand-alone device without as high-end a display.
Varjo's headset, and most professional VR headsets, are tethered to PCs with a number of cables. Apple's headset could work as a stand-alone device, like the Quest 2 and Quest Pro, and also work when connected to a Mac or iPad, much like the Quest 2 already does with Windows gaming PCs. Apple's advantage could be making a pro headset that is a lot more lightweight and seamlessly stand-alone than any other current PC-ready gear. But what remains unknown is how many apps and tools Apple will be able to introduce to make its headset feel like a tool that's truly useful for creators.
Controls: Hand tracking or a small wearable device?
Gurman's most recent headset reports point to hand and eye tracking as the main ways to interact with Apple's headset, which seems like Microsoft's HoloLens 2. But will there be any other control system at all? Hand tracking alone tends to be imprecise and not always easy to do detailed work in.
The Information's previous reports on Apple's headset suggest a more pared-down control system than the elaborate and large game controller-like peripherals used by many VR headsets right now. Apple's headset should work using hand tracking, much like many VR and AR headsets already enable. But Apple would likely need some sort of controller-type accessory for inputs, too. Cracking the control and input challenge seems to be one of the bigger hurdles Apple could face.
Recent patent filings point to a possible smart ring-type device that could work for air gestures and motion, and maybe even work with accessories. It's also possible that Apple might lean on some of its own existing hardware to act as inputs, too.
Could that controller be an Apple Watch? Possibly, but the Apple Watch's motion-control capabilities and touchscreen may not be enough for the deeper interactions an Apple headset would need. Maybe iPhones could pair and be used as controllers, too. That's how Qualcomm is envisioning its next wave of phone-connected glasses.
Future AR smart glasses may also be in the works
Getting people to put on an AR headset is hard. I've found it a struggle to remember to pack smart glasses, and find room to carry them. Most of them don't support my prescription, either. Developer-focused AR glasses made by Snap that I tried at home show what everyday AR glasses could look like someday, but they're still a work in progress.
Qualcomm's plans for AR glasses show a wave of devices arriving between 2023 and 2025, but at this point, no one has been able to crack making a perfect pair. Software, battery life and even common cross-platform interfaces remain a big challenge.
Kuo's prediction of AR glasses coming a few years after a VR-AR goggle-type headset would line up with what other companies are promising. The challenges with AR glasses are a lot greater than VR. No one's figured out how wearing them all the time would work, or how you'd interact with virtual objects: Hand tracking? A watch or a ring? Voice? Neural inputs?
Apple always touted the Apple Watch, first and foremost, as a "great watch." I would expect the same from its glasses. If Apple makes prescription glasses and makes them available, Warby Parker-style, in seasonal frames from its Apple Stores, that might be enough for people if the frames look good. Apple's VR headset, according to Gurman, will also offer prescription lenses. That could be a stepping stone to developing glasses later on.
Google acquired smart glasses manufacturer North in 2020, which made a prescription, almost normal set of eyewear. North's concept for glasses might be too similar to Google Glass for Apple's tastes, but the idea of AR glasses doubling as functional glasses sounds extremely Apple-like. More recently, Vuzix's planned smart glasses for 2021 show how far the tech has shrunken down, but even those planned glasses won't have the ability to spatially scan the world and overlay augmented reality: They'll be more like advanced glasses with heads-up displays and 3D audio.
A report from The Information in 2020 said new AR lenses were entering a trial production phase for Apple's AR hardware (9to5Mac also broke the report down). These lenses sound much closer to normal glasses than current AR headsets allow, but when would those be ready?
Could Apple make its first smart glasses something more basic, letting Apple slowly add more AR features over time and let newcomers settle into the experience? Or would Apple try to crack the AR challenge with its first pair of glasses? Augmented reality is a weird concept for eyewear, and potentially off-putting. Maybe Apple will aim for subtlety. The original Apple Watch was designed to be glanced at for just 5 seconds at a time.
Are the AirPods Max a sign of how expensive a headset could be?
The business-focused HoloLens and Magic Leap cost thousands of dollars. Current VR headsets have trended toward $500 or more.
The latest price reports suggest something between $2,000 and $3,000, which is in the territory of business-focused AR headsets like the HoloLens 2, or business-creative VR headsets like those from Varjo. An analysis from TrendForce published in February also estimates that an Apple headset's hardware would cost in the thousands, and it predicts that Apple would employ a "monthly subscription-based software solution."
Apple's headphones, the AirPods Max, indicate that the pricing could climb high. At $549, they cost more than a PlayStation 5. And those are just headphones. A pair of smart glasses, or an advanced VR headset, would be a lot more advanced.
Could it be iPhone-connected, too?
Qualcomm's AR and VR plans telegraph the next wave of headsets: Many of them will be driven by phones. Phone-powered glasses can be lighter and have key onboard cameras and sensors to measure movement and capture information. Meanwhile, the phone does the heavy lifting and doesn't drain the headset's battery life.
Apple's star device is the iPhone, and it's already loaded with advanced chipsets that can do tons of AR and computer vision computation. It could already power an AR headset right now; imagine what could happen in another year or two.
Apple could also have its own high-end dedicated chip in its first wave of VR and AR headsets, as reports suggest, but they'll also undoubtedly dovetail with more advanced processors in Apple's phones, tablets and Macs. Over time, this could mean smaller glasses that lean on connecting to other Apple devices, or the cloud.
How Apple could blend the real world with AR and VR
Apple already dabbles with AR overlays with real-world locations: QR code and NFC-enabled App Clips can launch experiences from real-world locations with a tap or scan. These micro apps are made to work with AR, too: With glasses or an AR headset, they could eventually launch interactions at a glance.
Maybe QR codes can help accelerate AR working in the "dumb" world. Apple's iPhones also have a U1 chip that can be used to improve accuracy in AR object placement, and also to more quickly locate other Apple devices that have the U1 chip, too.
Apple's AirTags arrived in 2021 with features similar to Samsung's SmartTags Plus that use similar ultrawideband technology. These tags could be seen via an iPhone app using AR, which could possibly extend into Apple's future VR or AR headsets. If all Apple's objects recognize each other, they could act as beacons in a home. The U1 chips could also be indoor navigation tools for added precision.
Microsoft's collaborative mixed-reality platform, Mesh, shows how meetings with people in virtual spaces could happen instantly and in work-like environments. Apple already enables multiperson AR in real places, but a necessary next step would be to allow a platform for collaboration in AR and VR like Microsoft has been trying to develop.
Apple's depth-sensing hardware is already here
Apple is already deeply invested in camera arrays that can sense the world from short and long distances. The front-facing TrueDepth camera, which Apple has used on every Face ID iPhone since the X, is like a shrunken-down Microsoft Kinect and can scan a few feet out, sensing 3D information with high enough accuracy to be used for a secure face scan. Apple's lidar technology on its recent iPhones and iPads can scan out much farther, several meters away. That's the range that glasses would need.
Apple's existing lidar technology, combined with cameras, is already good enough to scan environments and 3D objects. Add to this the wider-scale lidar-scanning that Apple is doing in Maps to enable overlays of real-world locations with virtual objects via a technology called Location Anchors, and suddenly it seems like the depth-scanning that Apple is introducing could expand to worldwide ambitions.
Apple's new Mac chips already point toward VR-AR compatibility
Apple's M1-enabled Macs and those since are technically a lot more capable of the power needed to run AR and VR, and they share similarities to how iPhone and iPads handle graphics. Developing a common groundwork across devices could allow a headset to feasibly run on an iPhone, iPad or Mac, making it a universal Apple device accessory.
That would be essential if Apple intends on its VR or AR headsets to have any role in creative workflows, or be used for games or apps. It's one of the limitations of existing VR headsets, which need to run off particular Windows gaming PCs and still don't play that well with iOS or Android phones.
Look to AirPods for ease of use -- and audio augmented reality
I've thought about how the AirPods' comfort -- and weird design -- was an early experiment in wearing Apple's hardware directly on our faces -- and it was a success. It proved that doing so could be accepted and become normal. AirPods are expensive compared to in-box wired buds, but they're also utilitarian. They're relaxed. If Apple's working on AR or VR headsets, they'll need to feel the same way.
The AirPod Pros' spatial audio, which AirPods Max and AirPods 3 also have, points to where future ideas could head. Immersive audio is casual, and we do it all the time. Immersive video is hard and not always needed. I could see AR working as an audio-first approach, like a ping. Apple glasses could potentially do the world-scanning spatial awareness that would allow the spatial audio to work. In the meantime, Apple's already developing the spatial audio tech that its VR headset would need.
Apple Watch and AirPods could be great companions
Apple has already got a collection of wearable devices that connect with the iPhone, and both make sense with glasses. Its AirPods can pair for audio (although maybe the glasses have their own Bose Frames-like audio, too), while the Watch could be a helpful remote control. The Apple Watch already acts as a remote at times, for the Apple TV or for linking up with the iPhone camera. Apple's future headsets could also look to the Watch and expand its display virtually, offering enhanced extras that show up discreetly, like a halo. Or they could use the Watch as some sort of controller.
The Apple Watch could also provide something that it'll be hard to get from hand gestures or touch-sensitive frames on a pair of glasses: haptics. The rumbling feedback on the Watch could lend some tactile response to virtual things, possibly.
There's already a low-cost pair of phone goggles, the HoloKit X, that explores these ideas. It uses an iPhone for the headset's display and cameras and can channel spatial audio to AirPods, and use an Apple Watch for gesture controls. Apple could do the same.
Could Qualcomm and Apple's reconciliation also be about XR?
Qualcomm and Apple are working together again on future iPhones, and I don't think it's just about modems. 5G is a key feature for phones, no doubt. But it's also a killer element for next-gen AR and VR. Qualcomm has already been exploring how remote rendering could allow 5G-enabled phones and connected glasses to link up to streaming content and cloud-connected location data. Glasses could eventually stand on their own and use 5G to do advanced computing, in a way like the Apple Watch eventually working over cellular.
Qualcomm's chipsets are in almost every self-contained AR and VR headset I can think of (Meta Quest, HoloLens 2, a wave of new smart glasses, the latest version of Google Glass, Vive Focus). Will Apple's tech dovetail at all with Qualcomm's cross-device platforms?
Lots of questions, few absolute answers for now. But we may finally know more soon enough.