The conversation around extended reality (XR) headsets comes and goes frequently — and is peaking again now. The story arc of these conversations has been similar for at least a decade (though we seem to have collective amnesia). First, they’re positioned as the next “must-have” consumer electronics device (think Neil Stephenson’s 1992 “Snow Crash” vision of the future), then we realize that the use cases are not very compelling (i.e., it’s just another screen right now) and that the headsets are uncomfortable to wear — and mitigate how much multitasking one can do. Last year’s buzz around the metaverse — which has little to do with headsets in the near term — also bumped up the fervor around XR headsets.
This is a summary of the buzz this spring:
- Apple may release a headset in June at its WWDC conference. A recent article in The New York Times article about dissent within Apple around the potential headset has prompted more buzz (there has been talk of this product release for years). The reports feel more specific this spring. Apple tends to release new hardware when, among other things, consumers are ready, and it has a lot of content or service partners in place.
- Meta cut the price of its relatively new high-end virtual reality (VR) headset from $1,400 to $999.99 in March 2023. In February 2023, it announced that its Reality Labs division had $13.7 billion in operating losses in 2022.
- Microsoft announced plans to lay off teams behind virtual- and mixed reality (MR), including HoloLens employees, in 2023. The company also shut down AltspaceVR.
- Disney dissolved its entire metaverse team — laying off 50 employees — in late March of 2023. This move is not directly related to headsets, but it is a component of next-generation entertainment from one of the largest, best-known brands globally.
I’ve spoken with several XR headset creators in the past few weeks. I spoke to ThirdEye Gen as part of some ongoing research in healthcare and in March 2023 attended the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. My sole purpose there: to see what was new with headsets. My takeaways:
- Price points are edging closer to consumer affordability. An Amazon search finds glasses for as low as $200 to $300, with prices edging up from there. Brands include Nreal, Ray-Ban Stories, Spectacles by Snap (not for sale to the public), and VITURE, to name a few. The kit with the neck-band controls that I used from VITURE came closer to $600. Those from ThirdEye (which target a professional — e.g., healthcare, emergency care) were closer to $2,500.
- Use cases (i.e., another screen) are not compelling — yet. As an engineer, I have a deep appreciation of the ability to watch a full-length movie or edit a Word document with a screen that only I can see on my headset. In the two or three conversations I had at GDC, I asked the headset manufacturers, “Why is this so compelling?” Answers seemed to home in quite narrowly on privacy — especially in tight quarters such as an airline seat. Earlier versions of headsets promised text messages and alerts in front of my eyes as well as an information overlay (e.g., home sale prices popping up in my vision as I swivel my head while walking around a neighborhood).
- Product demos were designed for a stationary user. I used the Nreal glasses to edit a document and the VITURE headset to watch YouTube. Like many headsets, these had the ability to make the surrounding visual space more or less opaque (or transparent), which had the effect of making the “screen” inside the headset brighter. I wouldn’t have been comfortable moving around. I’m not even entirely comfortable swimming up and down a lane at the pool with AR swim goggles.
- The devices need to deliver more oomph before consumers will buy and use them. I’ve researched and written about AR headsets. The lack of speed, limited field of view, weight, short battery life, etc., don’t make AR glasses a “nice-to-have,” let alone a “need-to-have,” device.
AR is an old technology that delivers compelling experiences when consumers use it. Most consumers who use AR in the near term will do so on their smartphones to play games or to try on shoes, shop for eyeglasses, or decorate their living room. When consumers use immersive experiences, it impacts their purchase decisions and improves results for retailers. The problem: Few consumers use the tech. Forrester’s Moments Map shows that only 22% of US online adults are comfortable using XR to consume information. If you do want to experiment, my colleague David Truog has outlined some design principles for these new experiences.
There are practical, if limited, use cases for MR or XR headsets today — especially in the enterprise. My colleague J. P. Gownder has written extensively about this area. He outlines some of the fundamentals in this video. He identifies opportunities in training, design, field service, and more.
As consumers, we’ll have to wait a bit longer. We need comfortable glasses at an affordable price point. Most importantly, though: We need compelling use cases and not just another screen. It will be fun to watch this space in upcoming years — including WWDC, if Apple does indeed release a headset.