Plus: Meta tries to crash Apple's party
Welcome back to Multicore for Thursday, June 1st — just about, thanks to a late derailing by Meta.
We'll get to that later. Next week's tech news is going to be dominated by Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference. Much of the industry tends to take a day or two off from announcements when Apple events come around, but this year's WWDC is likely to be particularly seismic due to the rare launch of an entirely new Apple platform.
I'm aware, however, that I'm in somewhat of a bubble when it comes to this sort of thing. Although I know a lot of people who work in tech or games here, even a lot of them don't seem to be aware — or at least fully convinced — of the imminent announcements.
So, I thought I'd lay my predictions on the table right now, and I'll cover what actually happens in depth throughout next week.
First off, the long-rumoured AR/VR/MR/XR headset.
I would be absolutely stunned if this doesn't get announced on Monday. There has been credible reporting on it for years, including in recent months stating that the reveal is set for WWDC, and expectations are so high at this point that Apple would be letting its investors down by not deliberately leaking news to the contrary. (Of course, how those investors react when the headset actually does get announced is another matter entirely.)
Just some other points of circumstantial evidence: the picture on the WWDC invite looks like a Fresnel lens, VR publications like UploadVR have been invited for the first time, Apple's tagline for the event is "A new era begins”, and the head of the studio behind popular VR-enabled game No Man's Sky kept tweeting out Apple emoji alongside a promise of a surprise in the "very near future" following today's Mac release.
Here's what I expect from the headset. It will be thinner and lighter than any mainstream VR product on the market, partly because of its external battery pack. A lot of people will rush to call that a clunky setup, but I think it'll be the right decision. Comfort is going to be key to whether anyone will actually want to wear this thing, and the battery pack needn't be much more cumbersome than having an iPhone in your pocket with wired headphones. Which, okay, is a regression, but ultimately not a big deal if the experience is good enough.
The screen technology will be best in class, not least because I can't think of any other way the device would justify its supposed $3,000 price tag. Specs shared by display analyst Ross Young this week would go some way to explaining that; he says it'll have two 1.41-inch Micro OLED panels with 4,000 ppi and more than 5,000 nits of brightness. (Don't worry about your eyes melting — VR headsets lose a lot of panel brightness through the lenses' polarization.)
I expect the headset is designed to be used without controllers, unlike the Meta Quest. Meta has introduced basic hand-tracking functionality, but it's bolted onto software built around the expectation that you're using two wireless controllers. Apple will likely position its controller-free software interface as a major feature of the device, like how it touted the lack of need for a stylus with the iPhone. Having said that, there will probably have to be options for external peripherals like keyboards and game controllers.
The biggest question mark about the hardware, for me, is its rumoured external display. This was first reported by Wayne Ma at The Information and later corroborated by Mark Gurman at Bloomberg. Here's how Ma described the feature:
The headset has inward-facing displays for each eye and a large outward-facing display on the front of the device. The external display can show the facial expressions of the person wearing the headset, along with other types of imagery, to people around the user, which is meant to reduce the isolation users might otherwise feel when wearing the device.
This sounds deeply weird to me, and Daring Fireball's John Gruber has had similar doubts:
I’ll stick with my previous understanding that this is an internal joke that has been taken as real; that it would look goofy, not humane; and that even if it didn’t look goofy, it would make no sense to add the financial cost of an outward-facing display to an already-expensive device, and even less sense to incur the battery-life drain of powering that external display on an already-battery-life-constrained device.
I'm less concerned about the cost (this thing will be expensive regardless) or the battery drain (this feature would presumably only be used in certain situations) than the fact that, like Gruber, I really can't imagine it not looking goofy. But Apple is often not afraid to make goofy-looking things, like the nightmarish Watch emoji it initially thought would be a core tenet of communication on the device, so I suppose we'll just have to see.
I'm not expecting to hear anything on pricing on Monday, and I doubt there'll be a precise release date either. "Coming late this year" or "early 2024" is the kind of detail Apple tends to give for products that are further out, such as the original Apple Watch. The HomePod was an unusual outlier — Apple announced that at WWDC 2017 with a release date of "December", which it ended up missing.
Like the Watch and the HomePod, Apple's headset will have some incumbent competitors, and Apple probably won't mention any of them. (Definitely don't expect any mention of "the metaverse".) The biggest, of course, is Meta, which IDC recently said accounts for nearly 80 percent of the VR market. The high-end Quest Pro looks to be a flop, but the Quest 2 is by far the most popular VR headset to date.
That's why Meta tried to take a little of the Apple hype for itself by announcing the Quest 3 overnight. It's not a full launch — Meta only says it's coming "later this year" — but there are enough details already to conclude that it should be a robust contender at the other end of the market.