Hardware, AI and content are important building blocks for the success of VR and AR. But another factor is likely to become the kingmaker.
Who will be the Google or Apple of the XR age, the rich and powerful gatekeeper of the new ecosystems?
Meta has a head start. Firstly in market experience: it has released half a dozen VR headsets and distributed 2 million devices with Meta Quest. On the other hand, Meta puts more into research and development than any other company: About ten billion dollars were just last year and will be even more in the future, Zuckerberg told investors. Meta’s VR and AR department, Reality Labs, has more than 17,000 employees. That’s more than a fifth of the workforce.
But the competition doesn’t wait. Apple has been developing a headset for a long time, which insiders say will be on the market in 2023. Project Cambria will be released later this year (info), Meta’s new high-end headset. It will have to measure up to Apple’s product – or vice versa.
In addition to Meta and Apple, Google (Project Iris) as well as Microsoft and Samsung (Project Bondi) are working on similar devices: slim headsets that can handle both virtual reality and augmented reality. The next few years will be exciting.
A gap between old and new
Should VR and AR see a breakthrough over the course of the decade, expect a paradigmatic shift in computer interaction. Mouse and keyboard and the touch display: They are supplemented and challenged with new interfaces such as voice control, hand tracking and neural interfaces. Computers are becoming more spatial, more physical, more immersive, representing a radical break with the past, something I paradigm gap want to call.
This gap between old and new is already noticeable today. If I set up a Meta Quest 2, I’m not only isolated from my fellow human beings, I can hardly interact properly with my laptop and smartphone. In one fell swoop, I disconnected from the rest of the computer ecosystem.
Meta tries to bridge the gap. You can forward smartphone messages to the VR glasses and use a handful of productive apps in virtual reality. But that is far from enough.
Apple’s big advantage in the XR battle
Even if VR and AR are used more frequently in the future or even become part of everyday life, they will not replace desktop computers, laptops and smartphones that quickly – if at all.
The new and old computing paradigms will long coexist, so the effort will be to bring them together to the point where you can move seamlessly from one platform to the next, whether you’re surfing the web, checking email, working or playing. This will be absolutely critical for the acquisition of new technologies.
This is where I see Apple’s greatest advantage over all of its competitors, including Meta: Apple has a unified, self-contained and coordinated ecosystem of hardware and software in which to embed its VR and AR technology. No other company has such good prerequisites for closing the paradigm gap and with it that central problem of the next computer wave to solve.
Meta: Relying on the goodwill of others
Seamless integration of the upcoming headset or AR glasses with the iPhone, iPad, Macbook and Apple Watch: That shouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle for Apple.
On the other hand, how difficult is it for Meta, which only has VR hardware and dependent on the goodwill and interfaces of other companies is to integrate the ubiquitous and dominant computer platforms of the present, the smartphone, into VR and AR glasses in the best possible way?
Apple, of course, has other aces up its sleeve: powerful and efficient chips unmatched by any other company, decades of hardware design experience, and massive market power. But something else should be decisive: Apple’s assets, one Bridging the gap between new and old technology.
Against this background, Project Cambria could be viewed as a grand attempt to address the emerging paradigm gap in the critical area of work and productivity. For now with a high-quality passthrough mode that allows a view of the smartphone and with the integration of 2D apps that bring office applications into VR. But that can only be the beginning.
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